Risk, Trust, and COVID

Photo Credit: Getty

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month that vaccinated people need not wear masks regularly, Americans’ reaction was polarized. Many seemed to tear off their masks and cry “Freedom!” while others not only refused to do so, they expressed horror that anyone would.

So while mask use dropped, large numbers still continue to wear masks in many circumstances. Many private businesses continue to require customers to wear masks, and so on. Each side considers the other at best foolish, at worst evil. While this may look like yet another partisan political battle, it is in fact related to attitudes to risk and trust that underlie our politics. Those different attitudes also explain why different groups often fail to understand one another.

We all worry about different risks — war, pollution, crime, technology, China, disease — and we weigh those risks differently. What one person may see as an existential threat, another might brush off as trivial. Cultural theorists have identified certain groupings of attitudes that underlie our attitudes to risk. The bottom line is that we view as risky what threatens our cultural groups.

Cultural theorists identify three main groups. Hierarchists value the rules and institutions that hold their culture together. Individualists value opportunity and self-reliance. Egalitarians value equality and fairness. So, each group regards as a source of risk anything that threatens those values.

Taking masks as an example, we can remember the horror with which many church congregations viewed rules restricting church gatherings. Those were viewed as a threat to the rules and institutions of those communities. Those rules were closely associated with mask mandates. We should not be surprised that hierarchist communities were hostile to mask mandates and saw removing masks as signaling a return to the primacy of their community rules.

Individualists are more complicated. While many individualists viewed masks as imposing on their self-reliance, other viewed the COVID disease as an equal, or greater, threat. While generally opposed to mandates, individualists of the latter sort were happy to wear masks until they were fully vaccinated. They are likely bristling against government rules that require “needless” mask wearing such as on planes.

Egalitarians, however, early on noted the particularly bad effects of COVID among the poor and vulnerable. The disease posed far more a threat to their value system than masks or any other preventative measures. They are likely to still be concerned about “long COVID,” asymptomatic spread, and the small but genuine risk of reinfection or infection of vaccinated people. They see people prematurely removing masks as an ongoing threat to their values.

The inevitable conflict between these value systems results in a lack of trust between groups. Removing masks affronts egalitarian values. Continuing to wear masks offends hierarchist values. As each group articulates arguments based on their different values, the result is a “dialogue of the deaf,” where neither side hears what the other is saying. When pronounced, such a mismatch of values can result in irreconcilable differences and deepening polarization.

Read the full article at Real Clear Policy.