by Emma Paisley Shultz
There are many things about this insightful, wide-ranging analytic essay that stood out to us! One of the main things we were impressed by, however, was Paisley’s nuanced, measured analysis of complexly interlocking behaviors over the pandemic—using social psychology as a framework of analysis but not ignoring larger political undercurrents as well.
On a revision level, as well, we were impressed by the way that through each subsequent draft, Paisley pushed their thinking further, adding nuance and incorporating more current events (especially around former Governor Cuomo’s initial surge of popularity and subsequent fall from grace over the past two years). This is an approach to revision as space for exploration and expansion that we were heartened by, and are excited to share this with the rest of the Lexington Review community.
—Zefyr Lisowski, editor
At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, people around the world were faced with immense fear, anxiety, and depression as they became increasingly concerned about the current and potential hardships they would face in the following months, which became years. COVID-19 would have the greatest direct impact on people’s social lives, forcing them to retreat inside their homes and socialize in ways they largely never had. Indeed, through each phase of the coronavirus, the greater American society has observed a huge range of behavioral responses to these tremendous lifestyle changes.
In certain parts of the United States during those initial months, there were people partying on Florida’s beaches during their spring break as though no virus was killing thousands of their family members, friends, and neighbors.14 At this same time, other Americans obsessively washed their hands, wore masks everywhere they went, and became borderline agoraphobic, refusing to leave their homes even for groceries and toilet paper. It is important to understand that people’s concerns about contracting the virus are closely linked with how valuable American society deemed them to be, considering that college-aged Floridian partygoers’ fearlessness stood in stark contrast to the trepidation of people with preexisting health conditions and elderly individuals residing in nursing homes. Through the lens of social psychology, it is interesting to theorize exactly why many of these social behaviors stood in great contrast to one another. By examining people’s behaviors with respect to mask-wearing and social distancing, social psychologists may better understand the impact of important psychological concepts like cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, negativity bias, social comparison, persuasion, and conformity.
The psychological theory known as cognitive dissonance is exhibited well through the example of college students’ continuing to party normally during their spring breaks in Florida back in March. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was mass confusion about the spread and risks of COVID-19, but as time went on, it became increasingly clear that social distancing would limit its spread. Still, these college students continued to interact with one another without being concerned about the virus, as reported by CBS News.14 While many people viewed this behavior as selfish and nonsensical, it is likely that these students were experiencing cognitive dissonance at this time. When people’s choices contradict their preexisting beliefs, they experience discomfort from the tension between these two contradictory cognitions.9 Cognitive dissonance explains this discomfort that one may experience as people’s desire to have their cognitions be in accordance with one another. In this instance, the first cognition is the understanding that social distancing limits the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious and dangerous virus. Their subsequent behavior of partying in mass gatherings, which exemplifies their second cognition of still wanting to see other people, conflicts with this first cognition. As a result, a mental tension arises, known as cognitive dissonance. It is also important to note that cognitive dissonance is particularly prevalent when people’s actions, in contrast to their initial beliefs, make them personally responsible for their behavior, violate their self-concept, have serious consequences, and are irrevocable.7 Given that hundreds of thousands of people died in the United States from COVID-19, it is indisputable that this partying likely made the infection rate worse. Therefore, these students were personally responsible for increasing the spread since they made irrevocable decisions with the serious implications of infecting themselves and others. Moreover, people tend to think they are good and rational, but making this selfish decision severely challenges these college students’ self-concept. Considering all of this evidence to suggest such, these college students must have experienced very intense cognitive dissonance as a consequence of violating social distancing to party.
Following the cognitive dissonance that the college students must have experienced as a result of the conflict between officials’ recommendations to socially distance and the college students’ neglect to do so, confirmation bias was evident in their attempts to reduce their dissonance. Since people like to have their thoughts, feelings, and actions be consistent and compatible, they need to reduce cognitive dissonance by changing at least one of their existing cognitions or adding new ones.9 Since the knowledge that COVID-19 is contagious and dangerous is dissonant with the college students’ behavior, many of these individuals tried to reduce their dissonance by arguing that COVID-19 harms immunocompromised and older age groups more.14 To put this logic in a psychological context, confirmation bias is the tendency to accept information that supports one’s existing beliefs and reject information that disproves one’s existing beliefs, leading one to misinterpret the truth due to their own biases.10 Despite the fact that the vast majority of news coverage focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the population as a whole, these college students decided to selectively choose the evidence that demonstrates young people are less susceptible to severe complications from COVID-19.14 Confirmation bias served as a poor attempt for these students to excuse their behavior and evade responsibility for their actions in order to reduce their cognitive dissonance and preserve their self-concept. Reducing one’s cognitive dissonance, however, oftentimes does more harm than good when people overly justify their behavior, instead of righting their wrongs and learning from their mistakes.8 Since they overestimated their invincibility to the virus as a result of their confirmation biases, many partiers subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.14 One positive implication is that the serious consequence of partying hopefully taught these students the importance of listening to officials and scientists’ advice in the future. By expressing regret following these incidents, some college students were likely able to overcome their cognitive dissonance and focus on how to learn from their mistakes in order to make better decisions in the future. These college students’ poor contextualization of scientific evidence demonstrates how confirmation bias affects people’s decision making, explaining these college students’ poor choice of neglecting social distancing measures.
While the partiers in Florida utilized confirmation bias to soothe the painful effects of cognitive dissonance, others recognized the importance of limiting their exposure to COVID-19 and weaponized different techniques to survive the pandemic, namely the negativity bias, loss aversion, and social comparison. Humans employ cognitive biases to learn and solve problems quickly, which is an evolutionary marvel until people’s distorted perceptions of reality obstruct them from responsible decision-making. Given the skyrocketing fatalities caused by COVID-19, the negativity bias, which is the tendency to focus more on potential threats than blessings, is certainly a more rational psychological bias to exercise.10 The negativity bias is fueled by people’s propensity toward loss aversion, the tendency to make decisions in an attempt to avoid loss rather than achieve gains. Incentivizing individuals to take greater precautions against COVID-19, the negativity bias and loss aversion explain why certain groups traded in partying for social distancing, unlike others. Social comparison quickly differentiated these groups at the start of the pandemic, which is the process of evaluating one’s abilities, achievements, and shortcomings in comparison to others’.11 With the news repeatedly informing them that they face the greatest risk of dying as compared to other groups, the elderly population and those with preexisting health conditions understood that they would be the most targeted by the virus. The people who were either immunocompromised, older, or lived with individuals who were at greater risk, therefore, would experience greater loss aversion since they simply have more to lose. As a result, these individuals took greater measures to protect themselves and others because the negativity bias, loss aversion, and social comparison served to remind them truly how much was at stake.
While intrinsic factors, like the confirmation and negativity biases, influenced people’s behavior, extrinsic forces were at play as well. To explain why some habitually wore masks while others did not, it is pertinent to understand the powers of persuasion at this time. Persuasion is the communication from a communicator to an audience about a particular issue or topic that aims to change the audience’s opinions, attitudes, or behaviors.3 There are three major elements of persuasion: the source of the communication (also known as the communicator), the nature of the communication, and the characteristics and mindset of the audience.6 The communicator of a persuasive message, for instance, has a great impact on how influential the message is on their audience. For New Yorkers, Governor Andrew Cuomo was one of these prominent communicators that had a great impact on them. Governor Cuomo established himself as a credible individual in the first few months of the pandemic, particularly when he began to hold regular televised conferences during which he informed the public about any updates with concern to the virus in New York.5 Since New York became the epicenter of COVID-19, the characteristics and mindsets of his audience created the perfect conditions for persuasion as vulnerable New Yorkers craved the information and guidance that Cuomo provided at the time. At these conferences, he spoke directly to the public, brought in experts to explain the science behind the nature of the virus and clarify any confusion, and offered graphs to demonstrate how social distancing would reduce the rate at which people were becoming infected.5 These conferences portrayed Cuomo as trustworthy as he leveled with New Yorkers about what was happening, uniquely offering them the truth about what was happening in contrast to many other politicians. By building up his trustworthiness and credibility, Cuomo was able to garner more support and persuade people to wear masks. More specifically, Cuomo created the “Mask Up America” campaign that urged all Americans to wear masks while in public or around other people to help stop the spread of the virus.13 In this video, he says, “I wear a mask to protect you and you wear a mask to protect me.” By relating himself to the audience, Cuomo demonstrates his similarity to all the other New Yorkers, persuading them further to also wear a mask.5 The nature of this communication was effective in persuading New Yorkers as well. When he argues that people should think of wearing a mask to protect others instead of solely themselves, he appeals to the audience’s moral emotions, portraying mask-wearing as indicative of one’s morality.5 By reassuring the public that the source and nature of the communication represented integrity, Cuomo was luckily able to appeal to the mindset of New Yorkers and persuade them to abide by COVID-19 guidelines at an incredibly turbulent time.
While he honed his persuasive skills incredibly well at that time, an important element of his persuasion, known as the source of the communication, eroded as the public became aware that Cuomo purposefully underestimated the number of nursing home deaths across New York State. As a consequence of his actions, this revelation shattered his image of trustworthiness and stunted his persuasiveness as the attitudes of his audience shifted. In the Spring of 2020, Cuomo implemented a policy in which nursing homes were required to house residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 once they were released and supposedly recovered in an effort not to overwhelm hospitals, resulting in increased fatality rates in these nursing homes.12 When public outcry, largely from Republican lawmakers and their supporters, threatened to destroy his reputation as the political savior New Yorkers needed, he ordered the New York State Health Department to release a report indicating that there was no correlation between his policy and nursing home deaths in July 2020. Months later, the state attorney general, Letitia James, exposed the fact that the Cuomo administration falsely reported these numbers by thousands of lives lost. Cuomo’s aides did so by omitting the deaths of elderly individuals that occurred outside of nursing homes, which does not quite demonstrate the scale of deaths that resulted from Cuomo’s policy. Even though Cuomo’s aides have asserted this underestimate occurred since these deaths were more difficult to verify, the New York Times states that, “the department’s data put the number of fatalities about 50 percent higher than the figure the Cuomo administration was citing publicly at the time. (The difference was estimated to be as much as 3,000 deaths.)”12 When considering the fact that Cuomo built his credibility upon this pedestal of honesty, facts, and figures, this effort to obscure the truth makes it clear that Cuomo’s motives were to save his political reputation rather than save lives. These obstructions of the truth have depleted the source and nature of Cuomo’s communication, spoiling the mindset of his audience from succumbing to his future persuasive efforts. For instance, Cuomo’s more recent attempts to persuade his audience that his decisions were not self-serving have proven to be significantly less fruitful. Now that he is no longer a trusted source of communication, the mindset of his audience has flipped, and the nature of his communication serves to rebuild his reputation in contrast to its initial purposes of saving his citizens’ lives, people are far less susceptible to any persuasive techniques he could employ. In fact, New Yorkers’ shift against Cuomo and his inability to persuade them is demonstrated by the public’s call for his resignation.12 The changing persuasiveness of Cuomo throughout the pandemic serves to highlight the elements of persuasion and each’s effectiveness in changing people’s opinions, attitudes, and behaviors.
While persuasion served to entice mask-wearing as demonstrated by Cuomo at the beginning of the pandemic, people’s decisions to wear masks more regularly were also heavily influenced by the powers of conformity. In social psychology, conformity is known as the real or imagined pressure from a person or group that influences a person to change their opinions or behaviors.2 Since limiting the spread of COVID-19 necessitates the cooperation of the public, people need to conform to new social etiquette, such as wearing masks. There are three major types of conformity: compliance, identification, and internalization.1 When new laws that required mask-wearing were implemented, people were forced to change their behaviors in order to avoid the consequences of not wearing a mask, like having to pay a fine. Since people conformed in order to comply with regulations, this first form of conformity is known as compliance.1 Identification, however, appeals to people’s desire to be like others by motivating them to conform in order to behave like a certain person or group of people.1 In the “Mask Up America” campaign, Cuomo also included other well-known individuals, like actress Ellen Pompeo from Grey’s Anatomy, to help advocate for wearing masks.10 Since Pompeo is a famous individual with a huge following, many people identify with her and want to behave like her, so her outspokenness about mask-wearing encourages people who like her to wear them too. Finally, the third major type of conformity is exemplified when people integrate the behavior they are conforming to as part of their personal set of values, known as internalization.1 A good example of internalization is demonstrated by Cuomo’s message about mutual protection from the “Mask Up America” campaign as previously mentioned.13 When people begin to internalize the responsibility behind wearing a mask in protecting their and others’ lives, they begin to see wearing a mask as a value of their own. In other words, they are not wearing a mask because the government mandates them to or because Ellen Pompeo tells them to; they wear a mask because they believe they should. Internalization does not require continuous reinforcement (whether that be by the person they admire for identification or the enforcement of government regulations for compliance) in order to be effective. Consequently, it is the most powerful form of conformity since it directly influences the beliefs of a person to change their behavior indefinitely. Cuomo, therefore, does not have to remind someone who has internalized mask-wearing to wear a mask because they now wear masks due to their own interests. For more short-term behavioral changes, mask mandates are incredibly effective methods of promoting compliance. However, for long-term behavioral changes, Cuomo’s “Mask Up America” campaign was and is incredibly impactful since it drew at both identification and internalization. Conformity is an important social psychological concept demonstrated during the pandemic, particularly while examining people’s decisions to wear or not wear masks.
From the partiers in Florida to the elderly in nursing homes to political figures like Andrew Cuomo, there were many social psychological influences to be observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While social distancing and mask-wearing were largely abnormal before the pandemic, both of these social behaviors were pertinent to preventing more deaths, especially during a time where there were limited medical resources to support people. Even though vaccinations are now readily available, the effects of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, negativity bias, social comparison, persuasion, and conformity are still prevalent in people’s behaviors as a spectrum exists of individuals who are wholly comfortable returning to regular life and others who remain cautious against the virus, especially with the looming threat of stronger strains entering New York. No matter what the future has in store, reflecting upon why people acted irresponsibly and how people were convinced to act differently through social psychology is vitally important to understand how to save as many lives until the pandemic’s bitter end.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Conformity: Levels of Conformity. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Conformity: What is Conformity?. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Mass Communication, Propaganda, and Persuasion. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Mass Communication, Propaganda, and Persuasion: the Nature of the Communication. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Mass Communication, Propaganda, and Persuasion: the Source of the Communication. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Mass Communication, Propaganda, and Persuasion: Two Major Routes to Persuasion. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Self-Justification: Dissonance, the Self-Concept, and Self-Esteem. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Self-Justification: Living with the Rationalizer Within. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Self-Justification: The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Social Cognition: Evolution and the Biased Brain. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Aronson, E., & Aronson, J. (2018). Social Cognition: The Effects of Context on Social Judgments. The Social Animal (12th ed.) [eBook edition]. Worth Publishers.
 Gold, Michael, and Ed Shanahan. “What We Know About Cuomo’s Nursing Home Scandal.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2021, www.nytimes.com/article/andrew-cuomo-nursing-home-deaths.html.
 Governor Cuomo Launches National “Mask Up America” Campaign Amid Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. (2020, July 18). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-launches-national-mask-america-campaign-amid-ongoing-covid-19-pandemic
 O’Kane, C. (2020, March 25). Florida College Students Test Positive for Coronavirus After Going on Spring Break. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-florida-spring-break-test-positive-covid-19-college-students-not-social-distancing-university-of-tampa/
Published November 9, 2021