In order to succeed at weakening the pandemic, we must address the process of role modeling. It is a significant factor that shapes our behavior.
Babies follow the lead of the adults in their lives, right from the start. You giggle, they giggle. This is how bonding occurs. Later, they play at doing what they see adults doing. When they are around other children their age, they observe and follow each other. This is how we get socialized. And it never stops. We keep being strongly influence by what others around us are doing, especially those in positions of power.
When it comes to who we model ourselves after, the powerful, rich and famous have especially large sway. Inherent in us is the belief that we will do better if we are like the people who are doing the best in our society and are in control. There is some truth to that. If you want a job and you look, think and act like the person interviewing you, you are more likely to get hired. Unfair, but true.
Some people, when they acquire positions that carry becoming a role model, respond in a conscientious, responsible manner. They are even careful to not give opinions about things they really don’t understand because they know large numbers of people will be influenced by what they say. It is one mark of professionalism that you know what you know, you know what you don’t know, and you have the self-discipline stay in the lines.
Other role models are not careful with their power to influence others. A man in Africa died because he followed President Trump’s suggestion that a certain medication might protect people from COVID-19. Now, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reports that his state received “hundreds” of calls after President Trump suggested at a press briefing that ingesting household disinfectants could be a treatment for the coronavirus. Mr. Trump was dangerously wrong about these things, but that doesn’t stop his opinion from carrying more weight than it rationally deserves. He is, after all, practicing medicine without a license with the full weight of his position.
We might wonder how you could hold daily press conferences not following social distancing guidelines well after you have prescribed them for the nation and imposed them on the press corps sitting right in front of you. How could you require Dr. Fauci to stand right behind you, shoulder to shoulder with other officials? How could you say you won’t wear a face mask just minutes after telling the whole country to wear them? How could our leaders not be following their own advice on such a deadly matter? The answer is worth knowing, and it is worse than we might hope.
The problem isn’t just one person. I’ve looked at reviews of research on how power affects people. As I go through the list, you may think both of examples and exceptions. We can be especially grateful for the exceptions.
The common saying should be extended like this: “Do as I say, not as I do, because I am not a good role model. Don’t follow my example.” Here’s why. Power tends to reduce people’s concern for safely and loss. When people get more power, they tend to get more strongly focused on self-interest rather than what is best for others. When they make decisions for others, they may not even intend for those decisions to apply to themselves. I will repeat and underline. They may not even intend for those decisions to apply to themselves or those in their inner circle. The more important power is to a person, the more likely these characteristics are to be true of them.
Let’s show some gratitude to people who are exceptions. How do some people in role model positions not succumb? They do so by having sound moral principles that they keep in front of themselves routinely. They know they must rely on them. With humility, they recognize that they can learn from unimportant people and they routinely seek them out for their insights. Want to know how to make hospitals safer? Research shows that the keenest observers of the total situation are the ones with the least control. So, ask the people who disinfect the rooms what they observe. They may be noticing wht others are too preoccupied to see.
As restrictions are lifted, we will notice more who is following best practices and who is not. If there are many who are not, one thing that will counteract the tendency to follow them is that we will rightly see them as a threat to our safety and the safety of others. Also, we can keep from following lax behavior by keeping our principles in front of us and letting them be what shapes how we think and act.
Just like children, we are also influenced by our peers. And they are influenced by us. Let’s take that responsibility conscientiously by being consistent in following best practices when we are in public. This can matter more than who people see on TV, especially when it is pervasive and consistent. We can be hopeful about that.