Here’s what we know about human psychology: It only takes a few people to tip the scales of acceptable behavior, for better or worse.

As it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic, trafficking in fear or shouting out science will hardly change most people’s minds. Studies show lambasting someone for their opinion further cements them in their original ideas.

That could be deadly behavior in a pandemic where personal hygiene, mask-wearing and widespread vaccination efforts are the way out.

From left, Peter Grinsell, Addi England, and Celeste Dorantes walk along Main Street in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Getting people to take those steps won’t be the work of experts and outsiders, although they will try hard — and probably not get very far. What will change behavior is ordinary people taking the courage to be a leader among their circle of influence.

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Social networks are the most influential contact points humans experience, according to researchers. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the reactions one gets in a social situation are worth more than any number of articles laden with complex science.

That’s what health officials and community leaders must keep in mind as they try to convince the public to take the actions that have been proven to mitigate the risk from the virus. Reaching the masses means first reaching the few who carry influence in certain circles.

Once those people come around, the rest takes care of itself. Consider behaviors in Japan, South Korea and other communities where mask-wearing is ubiquitous. The feeling isn’t so much one of compliance with local ordinances as it is about communitarian values — consideration for their neighbors to the point that noncompliance could be seen as a selfish act.

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Without targeted influence, the science won’t catch hold. In the Elizabethan days of voyagers and merchants, scurvy was the kiss of death for able-bodied crews. In 1601, Captain Admiral James Lancaster learned that giving lemon juice to his crew virtually eliminated all cases of the disease, just as others sailors were also discovering the curious benefits of fresh food. Still, it took nearly 200 years for the English Admiralty to officially mandate ingesting lemon juice for all sailors. The influence wasn’t there.

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The same holds true in the partisan landscape of the pandemic. Before the election, a growing share of Republicans were willing to accept a vaccine as distrust spread among Democrats. Now, after Joe Biden’s victory, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to want the vaccine, according to Matthew Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University.

It’s an annoying flip-flop, but it also proves the power of one to change attitudes and behaviors. The good news is it need not be a national leader to be that person; it might as well be you. 

We’re confident that well-regarded friends and loved ones can turn the tide by authentically doing the right things — without shame, badgering or a sales pitch — and inviting others to join them. Will it be you?

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