Right now, it’s normal to feel abnormal.
Health professionals have recognized masking and social distancing as powerful tools to fight COVID-19, but the sudden necessity of these practices drastically alters how we interact with others.
If you’ve felt uncomfortable while complying, there’s a reason for that. It turns out, the measures society is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 defy the brain’s basic programming, which has been honed after years of human evolution.
The Daily Tar Heel spoke with Keely Muscatell, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in UNC’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, a fellow at the Carolina Population Center and faculty at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Muscatell studies how factors like stress and loneliness affect physical and emotional states of being, and how social experiences are linked to health outcomes.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: Sometimes it can feel awkward and unnatural to wear masks and physically separate yourself from people. From a psychological standpoint, why is that?
Keely Muscatell: I feel like this is part of what’s making everything so challenging right now, is that connecting with other people is a fundamental human need. One of my all-time favorite psychology papers argues that exact thing — it’s a fundamental need, like food, water and shelter. We need to connect with others, and some of the things we’re being asked to do right now go exactly in the face of that: maintain physical distance from people, social distance, having to conceal part of our faces that’s really communicatory. There are lots of really good evolutionary reasons why connecting with other people has helped us with survival over the long term and so, it really does fly in the face of many years of evolution and what we know about how human psychology works.
DTH: I’ve read a bit about “insinuation anxiety,” which from what I understand is the feeling of worry that you’re offending someone by, in this case, wearing a mask around them by insinuating that they’re unhygienic. Is that accurate? How might this apply to social distancing measures?
KM: This is also an interesting question. I think it gets to sort of a fundamental misunderstanding about why we wear masks, which is not to necessarily protect ourselves, but to protect other people. The real function of a mask is to prevent you from passing your particles on to others, so really, by wearing a mask, technically what you are signaling is that you might be worried about having a virus or having an illness yourself, not about being worried about other people having it. And so I think if we re-frame the issue, actually wearing a mask communicates to other people that you respect them, that you value their life, that you value their existence because you’re saying, ‘I’m willing to put this thing on to protect you from me' — that’s really what masks are about.
DTH: There also, I’ve noticed, has sometimes been a feeling for people to monitor other people’s behavior, whether they are adhering to social distancing and the person doesn’t align with that view, or they aren’t and the person feels the need to say something or monitor them — so what sort of dynamic does that create psychologically, and what kind of challenges might be present there?
KM: I think the best way that we have to get people to wear masks and protect each other is just to do it ourselves. As I said in your first question, humans are super social creatures, and a lot of what we want to do is fit in with a social group. If you walk into a room or a space and everyone in there is wearing a mask, that sort of sets the norm for that room that ‘the social norm here is that we wear masks.’ We have this sort of natural tendency to want to fit in, and so I think one of the best ways to set the tone and to sort of get folks to behave in a way that you want them to behave is to exactly model that behavior, do exactly what you want them to do, make it the norm that ‘Here we wear masks.’
I think in the case that people aren’t, it’s potentially your life and other people’s lives that are at risk, and so to my mind, it’s perfectly appropriate to engage someone and say, ‘Hey, we’re supposed to be wearing masks, like, why aren’t you?’ or ‘What’s up with that?’ because people’s lives depend on that and depend on us doing this. My advice, and I think what the research would say, is to the extent that you can come to that conversation with empathy and with compassion and really try to sort of understand where folks are coming from rather than being sort of blunt-force policing and engage in an actual, meaningful conversation with them, you’re more likely to get people to change their behavior.
DTH: What else do you think is important to highlight to the community?
KM: First of all, I want to say, this is so hard. It’s hard. My heart really does go out to our students because, you know, I was a college student once. I didn’t deal with anything like this, and I know you want to be connecting with people. You want to hang out with your friends, you want to do all the things you think of doing as college students. It’s tough ... and we just have to do our part to protect the people who are most vulnerable. It’s hard to see that when you’re 20 and super healthy, and the bottom line is the risk is relatively low but important to keep in mind — it’s not just for you and for your friends, it’s also for so many other community members who don’t necessarily have the same background in health benefits that other folks have.
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