Psychology expert discusses COVID-19, public health order fatigue

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s been nearly six months since the mask mandate went into effect here in New Mexico. As the governor encourages people to keep following the rules, KRQE News 13 spoke with a psychology expert about the fatigue that is wearing on people. Experts said the more people see others wear masks, the more socially acceptable it becomes developing into the norm over time. However, it is hard to get everyone on board.

You’ve heard it for months: wash your hands, social distance, and wear a mask. “It becomes challenging to sustain motivation the longer we have been exposed to this,” Dr. Tania Reynolds at the University of New Mexico said. “We just get tired.”

Understandably, there is some fatigue. You see some people failing to wear masks from time to time. Others outright defy the public health order. “People want to get back to their daily lives,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the main reasons people fail to comply is because of the politicization of mask-wearing as well as mixed messaging about their effectiveness and necessity early on. “There is also issues with feeling as though your autonomy or own personal freedom or beliefs are being restricted because we didn’t vote on any of these safety procedures,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds studies why people think the way that we do. She said she believes people may be more compliant if the emphasis was less on how many people are dying which she said may discourage people and more on how many are saved when masks are worn and how many have recovered. “We aren’t getting those positive boosts of reinforcement,” Reynolds said. “We are sensitive to reward and punishment, and I think we need to keep hearing messages as to why it is actually quite a pro-social thing to do.”

She compared the pandemic to 9/11 that resulted in sweeping airport security changes nationwide that people adjusted to after witnessing thousands of Americans perish on live television. With COVID-19, people just see the death toll numbers due to HIPAA, often not hearing the stories behind the numbers unless they are impacted personally.

“If you haven’t encountered anyone who has contracted the disease or really suffered from it, it is not going to feel like a true threat,” Reynolds said. “If it doesn’t feel truly threatening, you don’t have the same motivation to engage in those protective behaviors.”

Reynolds added that it is psychologically easier for people to deny the threat of the pandemic and perhaps avoid wearing masks that are a reminder of it. She also said societal expectations are at play. She said it is important to remind people that masks are not a sign of vulnerability but they are a sign of protecting the vulnerable.

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