Why Are People Protesting Stay-at-Home Orders? Lessons for Writing, Rhetoric, Fact-Checking

Group psychology colors our perception so much that we face incredible obstacles to being well-informed as well as informing, much less persuading, people with different viewpoints.

Across the United States, thousands of people have been protesting state-wide "stay-at-home" orders issued by their governors despite the well-established concerns about spreading the Coronavirus and the equally well-established efficacy of social distancing.

Some of the protesters have even worn home-made masks, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves from potential exposure to COVID-19. That's some serious cognitive dissonance.

Why are people wearing protective masks to large, crowded gatherings protesting protective bans against gatherings?

Many observers say it's economic anxiety. A lot of people who can't work from home or aren't "essential" have been laid off (or soon will be). To pay their bills, they need to get back to work. To get back to work, everyone has to leave home. Economic anxiety makes sense as a logical, rational explanation for otherwise bizarre behavior, including these protests.

But it's the wrong explanation. We're actually seeing group psychology activated in a climate of political and social polarization.

Studies of group psychology have found that people rate members of their own profession as much more likable than average (Brauer, 2001), think of fellow group members as more complex and unique, and view out-group members as more homogeneous and stereotypical (Linville, 1989).

A classic study of group identity and selective perception asked Dartmouth and Princeton students to evaluate the rough play of their football teams in an especially brutal game (Hastorf and Cantril, 1954). Nearly 90% of Princeton students felt Dartmouth started the rough play, while 53% of Dartmouth students thought both teams were equally culpable.

Group affiliation skewed perceptions of the same events.

It also skews perceptions of politics. David Schmitz and Gregg Murray (2017) demonstrated that political partisanship “distorts our perceptions of an objectively measurable characteristic of our political leaders—their height.” It’s unsurprising, then, “that people often fall back on their political loyalties when they’re called on to make subjective evaluations of complicated issues.”

Significantly, group biases are non-conscious rather than rational and driven by emotion instead of evidence. When allocating points between an in-group member and an out-group member, study subjects chose the option that maximized the difference between the in-group and out-group members even if that strategy resulted in less reward for their own group member (Tajfel, 1970).

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With this kind of group psychology working against us, it's no surprise that political and social polarization have escalated to extremes. Many politicians, journalists, social media influencers, and alternative news sources have wielded the tendencies of non-conscious group biases to practice the "rhetoric of polarization."

I cover the "rhetoric of polarization" in detail in my book, Becoming Your Own Fact-Checker. Basically, this rhetoric uses "us vs. them" arguments to leverage and perpetuate existing in-group vs. out-group identities.

So when people protest "stay-at-home" orders in spite of Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, the WHO, the CDC, and every other public health official begging them to follow those orders, in spite of feeling the need to wear masks themselves, they are not reacting rationally to economic anxiety as much as they are following favored leaders who question social distancing and talk about reopening the economy as soon as possible.

Arguments for continued social distancing will be hard for the in-group to swallow since they will be associated with the out-group.

So how do we inform, influence, and persuade them?

In the free download you can get for signing up for my emailed newsletter, "Persuading the Unpersuadable," I suggest using new arguments for the topic at hand. Instead of shouting statistics about social distancing or showing large graphs of "flattening the curve," we could try entirely new, different arguments that aren't associated with an out-group.

What information and arguments might work? Leave your ideas in the comments.

If you enjoyed this essay, please sign-up for my newsletter at my website and check out my books, Become Your Own Fact-Checker and How to Write an Essay like an Equation.

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