Communication Scholar Observes the Effect of COVID-19 on Interpersonal Relationships

Spartan Brooke Fredrickson '20, a graduate of the creative advertising program at ComArtSci, dons a mask to protect others in the coronavirus pandemic, in this photo taken by her brother, Will Fredrickson, an incoming freshman who will study marketing at MSU in the fall.

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Ph.D, Explores the Controversy of Masking Up, Working from Home and Isolation in a Global Pandemic

Human interaction within private and public spaces has taken on a whole new dimension as COVID-19 causes people to consider the risks and benefits of visiting one another. In turn, anxiety and friction is on the rise among those who comply, those who don’t, and those who fall somewhere in between.

Michigan State University communication scholar and writer Elizabeth Dorrance Hall has been examining the effect of the pandemic on social interaction and on close relationships. Her monthly column in Psychology Today reflects her expertise in interpersonal and family communication, and provides accessible discussion on navigating personal interactions during the public health crisis. 

Recently, the assistant professor of communication has been a sought-after voice on resistance to “masking up” in public spaces. In an interview in the New York Times, Dorrance Hall speculated that some behaviors reflect local attitudes and peer pressure, meaning that even the most reluctant will put on a face covering if the majority of people wear a mask. In turn, if fewer people wear a mask, that same person will probably not comply with ordinances, too.

But the simplest explanation for resistance, she said, is that people don’t like to be told what to do.

“If someone tells us we have to do something, that’s a threat to our autonomy,” said Dorrance Hall. “We don’t like to be constrained in our choices. And if someone says you have to wear a mask, we feel constrained and may feel the urge to not do it.”

People like to make their own choices, Dorrance Hall said, particularly in the U.S. In more collective cultures, the needs of the group typically go before the individual. Americans are on the opposite end of the spectrum and tend to put the needs of individuals before the group.

“Mask wearing fits right in there,” she said. “At first, face coverings felt uncomfortable and different and strange. Now that wearing a mask has become politicized, a natural resistance has surfaced, too.”

Refusing to “mask up” is the manifestation of a behavior known in research circles as ‘psychological reactance’—or the tendency some people have to experience negative cognitions and emotions like anger when they are told what to do. Some people even do the exact opposite of what is asked. Providing people options for what they can do often helps prevent or overcome these types of behavioral reactions. 

“Providing choices communicates the message that you’re allowing someone to make their own decisions,” she said. “That’s even the perception when each of the two choices being offered results in a desired outcome.”

Dorrance Hall’s observations on wearing masks is part of the larger scope of her research on psychological reactance, as well as her expertise on family communication and relationships.

Stay-at-home, work-at-home orders have turned living spaces into giant petri dishes for studying what happens when daily activities are restricted, and when more people than ever are spending 24/7 in close proximity with their partners and children, or in some cases, totally alone. 

“We’ve never been so challenged as a global community with our social support connections, or close personal connections,” said Dorrance Hall. “Communication is relevant, and we have the power to reframe situations through how we relate and tell stories. If all we do is complain, we’ll be miserable. But if we can find what’s good and what opportunities there are, it can be really powerful for our health and happiness. Simply being mindful of how we’re feeling can go a long way toward maintaining our relationships with others.”

By Ann Kammerer

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