People refused to wear seat belts when they were first introduced — just as they refuse to wear masks today

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There was considerable resistance to the introduction of compulsory seat belts in cars in 1976. The debate is reminiscent of today’s discussion about wearing a mouth-nose mask.

“Such a regulation affects our body and to our psyche. So it quickly becomes an emotional debate,” says social psychologist Hans-Peter Erb.

Restrictions and prohibitions can cause defensive reactions, called reactance in psychology. Parents are also familiar with the phenomenon.

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The other day in a Berlin bakery, a woman reacted aggressively to the saleswoman’s friendly request to wear a mask. She refused until she finally stormed out of the store, upset. The saleswoman stood by helplessly.

Scenes like this are happening often in Germany. People in service professions, police officers and others present are now even becoming victims of physical attacks by mask refusers, whether on the train or in the supermarket. In France last year, a bus driver died after such an attack when he pointed out to passengers that masks were compulsory. Such extremes are fortunately rare, however.

There was considerable resistance to the introduction of mandatory seat belts in 1976

A leap back into history: For most people in Germany today, it is obvious that you must wear a seat belt in the car. But that was not always the case. As recently as the early 1970s, only ten percent of Germans wore a seat belt. There was considerable resistance to the compulsory wearing of seat belts, which was introduced in 1976 and for which no fine was initially levied for violations.

“At the time, mandatory seat belts were viewed very negatively by many,” says Hans-Peter Erb, now a professor of social psychology at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, in an interview with Business Insider Deutschland. Although he was still very young, he remembers the time well.

“Back then, the car was a symbol of freedom that had been unattainable for a long time before,” Erb says. “And then suddenly that freedom was restricted.”

Newspapers spoke of “compulsory seat belts,” and “Der Spiegel” asked whether the state could “force car citizens to survive.” Some fears seem bizarre today: Women worried that their blouses would be wrinkled or their breasts flattened – similar, perhaps, to the concern about sail ears caused by wearing a mask. So, analogous to today’s “mask muffle,” there was the “belt muffle” back then.

Erb also sees parallels between the debates about mandatory seat belts and mandatory masks: “A regulation like this goes very close to our bodies and our psyche. Then it gets emotional very quickly – unlike a new tax law, for example.”

People want to regain the now limited freedom of choice

Yet the benefits of a seat belt were and are clearly proven. Without a seat belt, accidents can be fatal for car occupants even at low speeds. According to the ADAC, a collision at 30 km/h without a seat belt is comparable to a fall from a height of four meters. The number and severity of injuries can also be reduced by buckling up.

There is also nothing to be said against masks, at least from a scientific point of view. Although they do not offer one hundred percent protection, there are now many studies that prove a measurable effect. Infected people infect fewer people with a medical mask or a self-sewn fabric mask when used correctly. This is because the novel coronavirus is transmissible even before symptoms appear. Experts now believe that this is one of the reasons why many Asian countries were less severely affected by the pandemic: Here, it was often normal to wear mouth-nose protection even before the corona pandemic.

But as objectively sensible as it may be, regulations and restrictions such as those on seatbelts and masks can lead to a defensive reaction. “There’s a big difference between deciding to do it myself and perceiving it as a coercive measure,” says social psychologist Erb, comparing it to a father who forbids his daughter to visit a certain club. A classic parental phenomenon: prohibitions are what make many things interesting in the first place. “In psychology, this is called reactance. People want to regain their now restricted freedom of choice,” says Erb.

Fear of punishment 

After the introduction of a fine of 40 marks at the time, the seat belt requirement finally took hold in 1984. Also in the coronavirus pandemic, many cities and towns introduced a fine for a deliberate violation of the mask requirement. “Fear of punishment is a powerful factor in changing one’s behavior. But it doesn’t lead to inner conviction, which is actually the more sustainable option in the long-term,” Erb explains.

The fact that regulations in the coronavirus pandemic varied widely among the different states didn’t help matters, he says. “The regulations were vague and led to absurdities,” Erb says. “For example, if I have to follow different rules when shopping in Hamburg than in Lower Saxony, that makes it incredibly difficult to convince people.”

There was also conflicting evidence for a long time about the benefits of masks. Even Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), was skeptical at the beginning, which may have had something to do with the shortage of medical masks at the time. In the meantime, the RKI recommends wearing protection to cover your mouth and nose.

“When it comes to negative issues, good arguments help. And it is of great importance who presents these arguments,” says Erb. Role models could be not only politicians but also credible experts such as scientists and likable people such as actors or influencers.

It depends on your personality

Should they not only argue factually, but also appeal to fears by warning against infection, for example?

“Slight fear makes people sit up and take notice. But if the fear becomes too great, it can lead to a perception defense,” Erb explains. “We know this, for example, from the disgusting pictures and warnings on cigarette packets that smokers ignore. If you feel helpless because of too much fear, you can also take refuge in fatalism: It doesn’t matter anyway.”

How people feel about covering their mouths and noses also depends on their personalities. “People are different in how strongly they orient themselves to norms,” says the expert. “In addition, there is a strong need to be unique among us today, to distinguish ourselves from others through our clothing or hairstyle, for example. This is at odds with our need to belong.”

Individualism has now taken hold of the whole of society and is also repeatedly picked up in advertising, he says: “The sense of belonging to a group is weakening, and commitment to others also plays a different role than it used to.” In the worst case, this leads to egoism and inconsideration. Not wearing a mask then signals the attitude, “I’m fine, I’m not at risk, I don’t need this,” Erb says.

For some, that ends fatally. The Republican and former U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain demonstratively ignored mask and distance rules until he died of COVID-19 in July. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also boasted that he would shake hands with infected people – and ended up in intensive care.

From a matter of controversy to a habit and an obligation

Perhaps wearing a face mask will soon be as normal and commonplace in Germany as it is in many Asian cities. At any rate, the excitement about the introduction of mandatory seat belts is hardly comprehensible to younger people today. The situation is similar to the smoking ban in offices, trains, and, in some cases, restaurants. People have become accustomed to the changes. “A descriptive norm has developed: A broad majority abides by the rule, it becomes a widespread habit. When we get in the car today, we automatically buckle up,” Erb says.

In 1970, almost 20,000 people died on the roads of what was then West Germany within that one year, even though there were far fewer cars at the time. In 2019, there were significantly fewer in reunified Germany, 3,046 accident fatalities – thanks in part to the fact that most car occupants now buckle up.

However, Erb does not believe that the decline in accident numbers has contributed significantly to the acceptance of mandatory seat belts. “Numbers and statistics are always abstract. If I experience it directly and, for example, a death occurs in my own family, it is much more effective,” says the social psychologist.

And how can we deal with aggressive mask refusers, like the woman in the bakery? “It’s quite important not to target such people personally, but rather to calm them down and argue convincingly,” Erb says. “I could say, for example, ‘I understand you, I also find the mask unpleasant. But it’s only  for a few minutes.'”

This article appeared on Business Insider back in September 2020, and has now been reviewed and updated.

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