The face mask study of 2014 and the Health Belief Model: Understanding how science views us

Can people freely choose their behavior? Or, are we controlled by environmental circumstances which can be traced to our so called, evolutionary past? This is the debate that seems to be dominating society, whether we realize it or not. God vs. science if you will. Certainly, human behavior can be influenced by many factors, including the environment around us. When presented with extenuating circumstances people can be forced to make certain decisions. Some of us will make more informed choices based on past experiences, while others, will make more erratic ones. Behaviorist’s attempt to whittle this reality down to an exact science claiming that our choices are nothing more than ingrained evolutionary responses to environmental factors, honed by thousands of years of instinct. The unfortunate reality is that science views man as little more than a stimulus response mechanism. Animals who have no control over our behavior, only able to react to whatever stimulus we are receiving.

“The human brain is not simply a switchboard by means of which one environmental event is connected to another environmental event.” (William T. Powers)

Understanding the concept of stimulus response mechanisms, also known as cause and effect psychology, is important because it is the lens from which science studies our behavior. It is in fact, the very basis of behavioral psychology (Powers). Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner have stated, and this writer has noted this several times, that any study of our behavior should be done from an evolutionary perspective. This means that the study of human behavior should always be done from the perspective that man has no control over his own choices, and that it is only the environment that motivates our responses.

 “In what we may call the pre-scientific view (and the word is not necessarily pejorative) a person’s behavior is at least to some extent his own achievement. He is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways, and he is to be given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures. In the scientific view (and the word is not necessarily honorific) a person’s behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed. Neither view can be proved, but it is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the evidence should shift in favor of the second.” (B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity)

B.F. Skinner was a behavioral psychologist known for doing experiments on his own daughter. He took the view that man is just another animal. He narrowed down the study of behaviorism to either the scientific or pre-scientific views. Pre-scientific means a time where it was believed men could freely choose their behavior and were, to some extent, in control of their decision-making processes. The scientific view takes the position that our behavior is determined. This is essentially the battle between free will and evolution. As he stated, “neither can be proven but in the nature of scientific inquiry, the evidence should shift in favor of the second.” This means that when your behavior is being studied, it is from the belief that you are an animal who has no control over your behavior. As Powers said, it is the basis of behavioral psychology.

Interestingly, Powers refutes this thesis to some degree by saying that behavior cannot always be determined simply by the stimulus response mechanisms being influenced by environmental factors, because the right models are not always being used. Come again? To be more specific, he says the models being used are not always appropriate to behavior. Furthermore, he states that a controlled environment that determines what parameters the study will be conducted from will largely determine the results.

“The apparent usefulness of variations of behavioral acts can be accepted as fact in the framework of a control system model of behavior. A control system, properly organized for its environment will produce whatever output is required in order to achieve a constant sensed result, even in the presence of unpredictable disturbances.” (Powers)

Why does any of this matter? What difference does it make? As this writer noted in his article Operant conditioning and the face mask pandemic, there was a study conducted in 2014 that was done to determine the public’s susceptibility to being forced to wear facemasks. The study concluded that people could essentially be motivated to cover their face based on the perceived vulnerability of being afflicted with life threatening diseases and, the perceived benefits of wearing a mask. The study also noted that perceived perceptions of embarrassment could inhibit the desire to wear a mask. Finally, the study found that a blitz in media efforts, supported by government, to promote public health was a huge factor in encouraging people to wear masks. This study, as noted above, was done in 2014.

As all studies are, this one was conducted based on a particular model of behavior called the Health Belief Model. What is the Health Belief Model? Interesting you should ask. It is a behavioral change model developed to predict or explain behaviors related to health and health related services. It is also one of the most common models of behavior used to conduct health related studies today. All studies have independent and dependent variables, factors for which they establish controls. The Health Belief Model did not account for the following ̶ ̶

  • It does not account for a person’s attitudes, beliefs, or other individual determinants that dictate a person’s acceptance of a health behavior.
  • It does not take into account behaviors that are habitual and thus may inform the decision-making process to accept a recommended action (e.g., smoking).
  • It does not take into account behaviors that are performed for non-health related reasons such as social acceptability.
  • It does not account for environmental or economic factors that may prohibit or promote the recommended action.

Interesting, it does not account for persons attitudes, beliefs, or other determinants that dictate a person’s acceptance of a health behavior.  Like the ability to freely choose on their own which behavior they will engage in? This is a perfect example of B.F. Skinners assertion that all studies be done from a scientific opposed to pre-scientific viewpoint. In other words, the propaganda you are being fed about wearing masks is based on a behavioral study where an individual’s ability to freely engage, in or disregard the behavior, is completely left out. Furthermore, The Health Belief Model makes a few preconceived assumptions as well, that the facemask study surely considered.  It assumes that cues to action are widely prevalent in encouraging people to act and that “health” actions are the main goal in the decision-making process. What is a cue to action? As described in the model itself, a cue to action is the stimulus needed to trigger an individual into engaging in the desired behavior. According to The Health Belief Model a cue to action can be perceived susceptibility to illness, or a news paper article.

The study found that a blitz in media efforts, supported by government, to promote public health was a huge factor in encouraging people to wear masks.

There is an ongoing debate between those that believe humans have free will and those that believe in, for a lack of a better term, evolutionary science. B.F. Skinner said that scientific inquiry into human behavior should be conducted from the latter viewpoint even though neither can be proven. Is that the way we really want to go? As demonstrated above, the study revolving around a major issue we are facing today, the forced wearing of masks, was conducted without accounting for individual differences in the way we all perceive what is going on. The study denied us our individuality. Furthermore, the study also assumed, based on Skinners theories no less, that most of us would just accept what we are being told because of the perceived authority of media and government. This is something that the American people need to understand if they are going to live in a free country. We are governed by those who view us as nothing more than stimulus response animals. When we respond to a given stimulus, they study that response and learn from it. Over the past five months they have come to believe that we are a very compliant population. In many ways, we have been. They will continue to push until we assert ourselves in the name of our free will to choose our own lives. To do that however, we must first understand the lens from which we are viewed. This writer believes the facemask study and the Health Belief Model provided a good base from which to show an example we can all relate to.

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