Build For Tomorrow Podcast with Jason Feifer

Why We Hate Being Told What to Do

by Pessimists Archive

People are refusing to wear masks in a pandemic. Why? To understand, we rewind to the “Anti-Mask League” of 1919 and to the opposition to seatbelt laws in the 1990s. Then, we answer the big question: If people won’t listen to mandates, what *will* they listen to?


• America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, by Alfred W. Crosby

 • Woods Hutchinson, early mask advocate

• San Francisco Examiner, Nov 22, 1918: Stories of the mask law coming to an end

• Washington Post: Coronavirus mask confrontations echo San Francisco’s Anti-Mask League a century ago

Surgeon Gen. Blue Advises Against Mask Order” (LA Evening Express, Nov 5, 1918)

“Campaign Against Gauze Masks Is Without Facts” (Sacramento Bee, Nov 5, 1918) 

The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia 

Science Vs episode about mask research 

“The Promise of Prevention”

• Jonah Berger’s new book, The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind

• Kevin Haggerty, University of Washington School of Social Work

• Dan Albert’s book, Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless

• San Francisco historian Gary Kamiya


This is Pessimists Archive, a show about why people resist new things. I’m Jason Feifer.

The people of San Francisco were excited. It was November 21, 1918, and this was to be their day. Their day of freedom. Their day of victory! And it would all begin at noon. So as the golden hour neared, they gathered in the streets in front of clock towers, and watched, and waited. It must have been a little like New Years Eve in Times Square, except with big hats that nobody thought were ironic. You can imagine them counting down the time—11:58! 11:59! And then…


The clock struck noon.


And the people of San Francisco… were able to take off their masks.


Because this was the hour when San Francisco’s mandatory mask law ended—and it marked the end, it seemed, of the whole Spanish Flu situation. The flu had hit San Francisco hard the month before. Businesses were shut down, and people were instructed to wear masks, which they did. But now, with the law expiring, people were excited to uncover their faces.

Here’s how the San Francisco Examiner reported it the next day.

BRENT 1: Five minutes after the hour, 95 percent had doffed their masks and were laughing back at the sunlight and into one another’s faces as if they had just made a great and delightful discovery.

The city had asked residents to deposit their masks at convenience stores, so that they could be gathered up and used as surgical gauze. The hospitals were running a shortage. But nobody remembered to do that. Instead, they threw their masks on the sidewalks, or they hung them on the front of an ice cream truck that was nearby. By 12:15, some newsboys saw a man walking by still wearing his mask, and they chased him, chanting “take off your mask”


In the San Francisco Examiner, right next to the news about all this, the writer Annie Laurie piled on the cheer.

GIA 1: The war is over, the flu is conquered. Our masks are off. Come, altogether, now—smile, smile, smile. And with that smile, conquer fear and down pain and shake distrust. This is the day of the smile.

But of course, as we know now, the smiles didn’t last long.

GARY 1: That was a big deadly mistake. And they had what we now call the second wave.

That’s San Francisco historian Gary Kamiyah. These days, of course, we all know about the second wave of the Spanish Flu—that wave of sickness and death that came after everyone thought the virus was gone. And once the second wave struck, as you might imagine, a second mandate to wear masks went into effect. And that’s when San Francisco got a second, far more assertive movement against the masks. I mean, the first time people were forced to wear masks, they complied and then they partied in the streets when the mandate was over. But… the second time? That’s when people organized…

GARY 2: the anti-mask league.

My phone connection with Gary wasn’t the best, so just to make sure you heard that right: He said The Anti-Mask League. As in, an organization… against masks… that called itself the Anti-Mask League. It was formed in January of 1919.

GARY 3: and they had this notorious mass meeting where they had 2,500, or in different numbers, could have been as many as 4,000 people leading in an auditorium

They did not want to wear masks. They were done with masks.

GARY 4: the anti-mask league began to agitate and they actually, no doubt, played a major role in the resending of the mask law on February 1st.

And so, it seemed, they liberated people’s faces to breathe in that fresh, virus-y air.

This story may sound familiar today, and for a few reasons. I mean obviously first, there’s an echo of it in our own world right now. As I record this, in May of 2020, medical experts fear that our own second wave is coming, and our own protestors are outside of state capitals.

And also, it’s possible that this story is familiar because you’ve actually already heard about the Anti-Mask League of a century ago. NPR reporter Tim Mak unearthed it in a now-viral twitter thread recently, and it caused a wave of media attention. For example, the Washington Post had this headline: Coronavirus mask confrontations echo San Francisco’s Anti-Mask League a Century Ago. And Time Magazine ran with this: 1918’s Warning for Coronavirus Shutdown Protesters.

Now, these stories all play towards the same point—that the Anti-Mask League was foolish, and led to more deaths. But the thing is, we shouldn’t just shake our heads and say “oh, those dumb people”, and we shouldn’t resign ourselves to repeat history either. Because there is actually so much to learn here—far more than any media outlet that I’ve seen has given it credit for.

The Anti-Mask League isn’t just about people being dumb. It’s not even, maybe about being dumb at all. It’s about human psychology. And if you want to understand how to change people’s behavior, then these days, there’s really no better place to start than with the Anti-Mask League. Because there’s a name for what’s happening here. It’s a well-known, well-documented, often-repeated phenomenon—and it’s called reactance. Here’s Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger.

JONAH 1: so psychological reactance is sort of a negative emotional state that we feel when we feel like we are not in control of our behavior.

People don’t like losing control, even if it’s good for their health. So the question is: How do you give them control, and still get them to do what you want?

That is the question I want to explore on this episode of Pessimists Archive, because it’s a critical one right now. These are complex times, and they will not be clarified by simplistic anecdotes. So it’s time to take a trip into psychology. Into marketing. Public health. And, after all that, we’re going to get into the real history of the anti-mask league—the one that Gary says everyone is missing.

GARY TK: there’s been a lot of really poor reporting and sort of sensationalist reporting on the mask laws, it’s simply factually wrong.

So let’s get it right. And it’s all coming up after the break.

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Alright, we’re back. So I know, I just made a pandemic-sized promise to you, to draw some giant lessons from this tale of people not wanting to wear masks. So let’s waste no time getting into it—and we’re going to start by going back to Jonah Berger.

JONAH 2: I’m a marketing professor at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, uh, and the bestselling author, uh, most recently, The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind, uh, as well as some prior books: Invisible Influence and Contagious.

And when I told Jonah about the anti-mask league, he said, yeah, that’s a great example of reactance. The word reactance describes that negative emotional reaction—like, if you’re at work, and your boss says “here’s the plan and here’s what you’re going to do.” Then you immediately start thinking about why it’s a bad plan and why you don’t want to do it and why it’s not going to work… and that is reactance. You are experiencing reactance.

JONAH 3: we have a drive for freedom and autonomy, we like to feel like we’re in charge, we’re in the driver’s seat of making our decisions. Anytime we feel like someone else is trying to persuade us or shape our behavior or actions or attitudes. We essentially put up an anti-persuasion radar. You can almost think about it like an anti-missile defense system, or like a spidey sense, if you will, that goes up when we feel like someone’s trying to persuade us.

And this is built deeply into us, as any parent knows. I mean, have you ever told a kid to stop doing something? Here’s us at dinner last night, trying to get our 5-year-old to stop putting his feet on the table.

WOMAN: Nope, not okay.

MAN: No, Finn stop putting your feet on the table

Child: Well, it’s just what I do

I mean I’ve got to hand it to him. It’s just what I do. That is a… indisputable fact. And Jonah says: It’s also not such a bad thing!

JONAH 4: the same processes that drive our behavior when we’re young also shape our behavior when we’re older. They’re just a little bit more complex

I mean, reactance helps us avoid scams. It’s why every advertisement doesn’t drain our bank account, and why we can develop into leaders and critical thinkers. Reactance can create a kind of overconfidence—which can be totally off-putting, of course, but also, who would start a world-changing company, or an ambitious new restaurant, or whatever, despite there being a high likelihood of failure, if it wasn’t for some kind of overconfidence? How many entrepreneurs have said some version of: If you tell me I can’t do something, then I’ll do it twice. Well. That’s reactance.

The problem is that although reactance can help us stand out, it can also leave us blind to good ideas. Because not all persuasion is bad. You really should keep your feet off the table. And protective measures during a pandemic are not the only time that people have pushed back against things designed to protect them—like, OK, we’ll come back to Jonah Berger in a second, but do you know the history of people opposing seat belts?

It goes back to the 1930s.

DAN 1: There’s a plastic surgeon in Detroit stitching up faces and he notices that, hey, this gash on this forehead looks exactly like this radio knob on this Chrysler.

That’s historian Dan Albert, author of a book about automobile history called Are We There Yet? And this plastic surgeon starts telling car companies—hey, people are slamming their faces into your cars! And that’s where you start to get things like padded dashboards—but from there, auto makers were generally resistant to adding safety features, because they were expensive and they would remind people of how unsafe a car could be. Also, people just didn’t want a lot of this stuff. Just straight up didn’t like it. In the 1940s, surveys of drivers said no, do not put in seatbelts. In 1956, Ford came out with a car that did have a seat belt, and it advertised all of the car’s safety features, and sales tanked. In 1968, the federal government forced car companies to include seat belts, and it barely mattered because only 5% of drivers actually used them.

DAN 2: they are just kind of tucked behind the seat and nobody’s buckling up.

In 1974, the government passed a law mandating something called an interlock—which is to say, the car wouldn’t start unless seat belts were buckled. People absolutely revolted against this. They flooded congress with complaints, and lawmakers scrambled to pass a new law… and that was the end of the interlock. In its place, a car could buzz to remind you to wear a seatbelt… but only for a maximum of eight seconds.

DAN 3: And that’s my favorite because in a car today, the buzzer can only last eight seconds.

What! I mean I know a cars beep when you don’t have your seatbelt on, but… only for eight seconds and that’s… by law? OK, let’s grab a timer and see about this…


…2…3….4…5…6…7…8. Exactly.

Well, senator, after millions of dollars spent to win re-elections, and years spent entrusted with immense power and responsibility, what did you accomplish for the American people? Well, I made sure cars could only remind you to be safe for more than eight seconds.

Well, how about that. Then, in the 1980s, senator Elizabeth Dole struck a deal with the auto companies. They really, really didn’t want to install airbags, and so she said—OK, we won’t force you to, but in exchange, you have to lobby states to pass mandatory seat belt use laws. So the companies did, and the states started to pass them, and they made these arguments about how wearing seatbelts was a greater public good, and highlighted stories about people whose lives were saved by seatbelts and… oh boy, people were pissed. Here’s from a letter to the editor I found in the Berkshire Eagle of Massachusetts, from 1994:

BRENT 2: I do not for an instant believe any slanted statistical evidence presented by their side, and I’m sick unto death of hearing this public-burden theory or that story of the child saved by the seat belt. If I wear my seat belt it’s because it makes me feel safer, but some faceless yahoo in a suit in Boston may not legislate my safety by coercion.

And is that not a fascinating piece of writing? It was signed by a guy named David Vittone—and OK, let’s consider what David wrote there. He does believe that seat belts makes him safer, but he still sees seatbelts as something pushed on him and based on lies. And that is such a beautiful example of reactance, the psychology term we were talking about a moment ago. I got to wondering, like, how long reactance lasts in a situation like this. Like, what does David thinks about seat belts now, all these years later… now that they’re common, and most people wear them, and the emotions around the issue have died down? Does David wear a seat belt?

So, I… did a little Googling… and some social media stalking… and I sent a lot of emails, and…

DAVID 1: Do you remember writing that letter? Um, if I read it in my tone of voice, I can hear that guy. But no, I have no recollection of writing that at all.

Still, there’s no question. It was him.

DAVID 2: I mean, I’d write 10 letters a week. They’d print one. Just that kind of guy, troublemaker.

Dave is a musician who’s usually out playing gigs, but of course that’s all gone these days so he had plenty of time to chat. And honestly, I liked talking to him. He’s funny and self-deprecating and never runs out of things to say—and at his very, very core, he hates being told what to do. Like, OK, let’s talk about seatbelts. He lives in a remote part of Massachusetts, and it’s miles from his home to the nearest main road, and he will not wear his seatbelt on those backroads… just to stick it to the man. Even though he has been in car accidents on the main roads, which is where he does wear his seatbelt.

DAVID 3: Oh yeah. Airborne. I was airborne head on collision. I’m like airborne glass. I’m like this, ahhhh, you know, and right to the- right to the stop at the seatbelt, hold you in the seat seat and lap, lap and shoulder belt. I’m like, Whoa that works! That was exciting.

What’s the- what’s the moral of that story? The moral of that story is that the seatbelt saved your life.

DAVID 4: Maybe, well save me from injury, but just, um, um, I’m annoyed. I have a finely tuned hair-trigger sense of outrage

So I wondered: Back in 1994, was there anything the government could have done to not trigger that sense of outrage in him, and still get him to wear a seatbelt?

What do you think was the better thing for the government to do in that situation?

DAVID 5: I really don’t know because all I know as a child, I could ride, um, facing backwards in a station wagon and can’t do that anymore. I could ride in the back of a pickup truck bed. It’s no more or less safe or dangerous now than it ever was, and I can’t do that anymore.

He just kinda went on like this for a while, recalling all the freedoms he felt he once had, that he doesn’t anymore. But the short answer is this: He doesn’t really have a solution to propose. But he says that he’d be more willing to wear a seatbelt, if they didn’t force him to do it.

And this is interesting because, if you were so inclined to argue with Dave about this, you could have a looong argument. You could argue about greater good or public safety. And Dave, or someone like him, could argue about personal liberty and the role of government. And I get it. This can be philosophical and political and ideological and it can get there very fast… for seatbelts and masks and anything else you wanted to throw into the pot. But my point is not to engage with any of that here, because those are bigger and stickier than the very human question at hand. And that is: If you’re in the position of trying to create change—to change people’s behavior—then what do you want to do here? Do you want to argue with Dave, even though there’s no argument that will ever convince him to change? Or, do you want to do something else? Do you want to find another way?

Because there are other ways to change people’s behavior. And this brings us back to Jonah Berger, the Wharton marketing professor. Because…

JONAH 5: One of the simplest ways to think about it is to give people choice. At its core, what drives reactants is people don’t feel like they’re in control. And so any way you can give that control back, rather than trying to persuade people, let them persuade themselves… they’re going to be more likely to go along.

A simple example is this: Great presenters will often give people two options—you can do A or B. If they only told people to do A, people would think of all the reasons they don’t want to do A. But if you give them A and B, then people sit and think about which one they like better. Or, you could step it up and not give them any options at all… and instead, you let them create the options.

JONAH 6: I was talking to a startup founder who wanted people to work hard and stay after work. And of course, when you tell people, hey, you need to put in more hours, they say, ah, no thanks. I’m not really interested. So instead he had a meeting, and in that meeting he said, Hey, you know, what kind of company do we want to be? Do we want to be a good company or a great company? Now you know exactly how people answered that question. They go, we want to be a great company. And then he says, okay, well how can we be a great company and people start throwing out ideas, and one of them is they need to work harder, and then later when he comes around and say, great, you know, that’s a great suggestion. Let’s do it. It’s going to be much harder for people not to go along because they came up with the idea themselves.

But how do you do that at scale? Because if you’re trying to shift the behavior of millions of people—say, to get them to wear seatbelts in cars, or masks in a pandemic—then you can’t do it all by town hall. And so Jonah offered two courses of action here, with great examples.

The first is, highlight the gap.

JONAH 7: So rather than telling them what to do, point out a gap between their attitudes and their actions. Or what they are doing and what they might recommend for someone else.

For example, Jonah told me about this amazing anti-smoking campaign in Thailand. The government had been telling people not to smoke, but that wasn’t working. So they hired the advertising firm Ogilvy Thailand, who executed a brilliant idea. They sent children out onto the streets, holding a cigarette. Then, with the secret camera rolling, the kid would find an adult who’s smoking, and walk up to them and say…


That’s footage from the advertisement that was eventually made out of the this. So the kid is saying: Can I get a light? You know, it’s the thing that adult smokers will say to each other all the time. Can I get a light? And in response, the adults all start lecturing the kid. They say…


One man here is saying, if you smoke, you die faster. Don’t you want to live and play? And another says: You know it’s bad right? When you smoke, you suffer from lung cancer, emphysema, and strokes. And then, here comes the gut punch—once the adult is done talking about all the ways that smoking is bad, the kid hands them a card and walks away. So the adult opens the card and reads it. And it says: You worry about me, but why not about yourself?

This ad had a huge impact. It almost immediately led to a 40 percent increase in calls to a Thai agency set up to help people stop smoking. And it’s because of that thing Jonah said—highlighting the gap. Showing people the distance between their attitudes and their actions.

And here’s the second way to change behavior at scale—and that is, social influence.

JONAH 8: There’s a great campaign in, in the UK, for example, where some set of people aren’t paying their taxes on time, and so they send out a letter just letting people know who aren’t paying their taxes, that most of their peers pay their taxes, and that greatly increases the rate of compliance.

Similarly, the utilities company O-power got people to use less energy by including a little note with people’s bills that said stuff like: Hey, your neighbor is using 50% less energy than you. This way, you’re never really telling someone what to do—you’re just giving them information that makes them reconsider their own actions.

So, knowing all this, I wondered: During this pandemic, has Jonah seen anything coming out of state or federal governments, that he thinks has been an effective method of influencing behavior without triggering reactance? And he said… no.

JONAH 9: public health officials and government officials think it’s all about information. And while information is useful sometimes, that often isn’t the biggest driver of behavior.

Which is a kind of depressing statement—because, you know, I like information. I’m here providing information right now! But it reminds me of what we learned talking to Dave about seatbelts. You can have a logical argument all day long if you want to… and, of course, I think that’s what a lot of people just want. They just want to argue. But if the goal is to actually change behavior — not change people’s attitudes, or their core beliefs, or how they feel —just change the behavior, then you have to start from the understanding that arguments and mandates and information won’t work for a lot of people. So you might as well try something else.

And what else is there? It is now time to tell you about the real history of the Anti-Mask League of a century ago… which is actually a really complicated history of how not to fight a pandemic, and what we should do… but probably can’t do… instead. And it’s coming up after the break.

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Alright, we’re back. So, it’s time to get into just what was motivating the Anti-Mask League. And it’s important to understand this, because like I said, the Anti-Mask League has been used to draw all sorts of parallels to today. Here are a couple more headlines to give you an idea. A post on said: Protesting During A Pandemic Isn’t New: Meet The Anti-Mask League Of 1918. And in a story that featured the Anti-Mask League, said: San Francisco had the 1918 flu under control. And then it lifted the restrictions.

But, just what is the lesson of the Anti-Mask League? It’s more complicated than it sounds.

Before I started reporting this episode out, I kept wondering this question: Like, aside from just the simple fact of people not wanting to be told what to do, what else might have been behind thousands of people refusing to wear masks during a pandemic? And then I remembered something I’d read once. It was a piece about how frustrating it is to work in the field of prevention, because you have to constantly struggle to get financial or political support.

KEVIN 1: Well, it’s always hard, um, when you think about demonstrating the impact of prevention, to convince people of something that didn’t happen.

That’s Kevin Haggerty, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, who directs a research group that’s focused on the science of prevention.

And I mean, think of it. If you’re a politician deciding where to throw your support, or where to direct resources, prevention doesn’t have a lot of payoff for you. Prevention requires money and effort. That’s money and effort that could have gone somewhere else. People must sacrifice in some way for prevention, which means sacrificing for… the absence of something. Something you can’t see, and that’s very hard for a politician to get credit for. I mean it’s nearly impossible to say: Hey, a bad thing didn’t happen to you, because of me. And also, keep in mind that prevention doesn’t necessarily mean elimination. It could just mean lowering the rate of something. So now, imagine trying to say: Hey, a bad thing happened, but thank me because it could have been worse! And also, for what it’s worth, many people just don’t believe that prevention is even possible.

KEVIN 2: I work in the area of substance abuse prevention, and for many years people didn’t really believe that you could actually prevent things like: Substance misuse or teen pregnancy…

If you ask people if drug abuse or teen pregnancy is a big problem, Kevin that they say it is. They say those rates up. But, not true! Prevention has worked. They’re both way down!

So how do you actually get people to buy in to prevention? Well, Kevin offered two ways. One is leadership. If leaders buy in, and even participate, that makes a difference, he says. And on the question of masks today, well you’ve seen… shall we say, some mixed messages from our leadership. And the other thing you need in order to grow support for prevention is… data.

KEVIN 3: it’s really pretty hard to convince people of the impact of prevention without having really strong longitudinal randomized control trials.

That might sound like a contradiction with what Jonah the marketing professor said a moment ago… you know, about how information isn’t always convincing to people. But I think the two actually go hand in hand, because the thing is: Smart communication may bring people in, but they won’t stay if they don’t like what they see. They need to see something that feels convincing. And we do not really have convincing with most masks. The podcast Science Versus did a great episode breaking down the science of masks, explaining that we do have some good studies showing that surgical masks can stop virus transmission—but of course, those aren’t the masks that most people have access to, or even should have access to, given the shortage for healthcare workers. Here’s host Wendy Zuckerman from that show:

SCIENCE VS: Frustratingly, we don’t have studies like the ones we just talked about for cloth masks. The research just hasn’t been done. Which is a big reason why we have the great mask war going on over cloth masks.

No leadership buy-in, and no research. Basically, people are being asked to cover their faces today with whatever they have, as a way to improve some uncalculatable odds. And that is a pretty good setup for this.

So take me to the flu of 1918 in San Francisco

GARY 6: Yeah, so San Francisco, was very hard hit by this horrifying epidemic, and, unfortunately they didn’t react as quickly as some other American cities

This again is Gary Kamiya, the San Francisco historian we heard at the beginning of the show. He’s the author of Cool Gray City Of Love: 49 Views Of San Fransisco, and he writes a history column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Now remember, the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco that he’s telling us about formed in January of 1919, but the flu first reached San Francisco a few months earlier, in the fall. So to understand where these anti-maskers were coming from, we need to see what led up to them.

And let’s start in October of 1918. The city is hit hard and reacts late. Schools and businesses were finally shut down in the middle of October, but the centerpiece of the city’s response—the thing that they really put the bulk of their messaging and faith into—was kind of unusual.

GARY 7: they thought the masks were more effective and made them the centerpiece of their efforts more than any other American city.

Masks weren’t really a thing across America at that point, though they were more popular on the west coast. That’s because a well-known doctor named Woods Hutchinson had traveled up and down the coast, proclaiming that masks were a nearly foolproof way of avoiding the flu. At first, San Francisco just suggested that people wear masks. But by late October, they were mandating it.

And here’s the thing—people wore them! And they generally wore them without protest, because of something else entirely unrelated. World War I was still going on, and fighting the flu became equated with the war effort.

GARY 8: it was your patriotic duty to wear a mask. And if you didn’t wear a mask, you were a slacker, as the expression was called you weren’t out on the front lines with the boys, but you were at home and you had to do your duty.

But despite that, confusion soon reigned. In late October, newspapers around the country reported that the surgeon general of the United States, as well as other top medical authorities, had declared masks to be harmful. A telegram statement from them had apparently said:

BRENT 3: There is no virtue in the masks. Rather, they are a detriment to free breathing into the lungs of plenty of pure air and sunshine, the real antidotes for sickness of any kind where truth, itself, is not accepted as the shield.

This was welcome news in places where masks were being worn. In New Orleans, a local order to wear masks was immediately cast aside, and the Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported that waiters in restaurants had “cast aside the masks and are now breathing freely.” Meanwhile, the captain who’d originally issued the order to wear masks in New Orleans was “transferred to other duty.”

But, surprise! It was fake news. Here was the headline in the Sacramento Bee, a few days later:

GIA 2: Campaign Against Gauze Masks Is Without Facts

It seems someone sent a fake telegram, signed by the surgeon general of the United States, and the newspapers all printed it. So what did the surgeon general think about masks? Well… he told the Sacramento Bee that he recommends wearing a mask if you’re coming in contact with influenza. But otherwise, he said:

BRENT 4: We do not recommend that persons not in immediate contact with influenza cases should wear a mask, but we do not advise against it either.

For those keeping track at home, that was the rare—


Triple negative in a sentence! The hat trick of negative. It was as if someone said, Mr. Surgeon General, are you a person who can bring clarity to this world? And then he said:

“Uhhh, negative, I’m a meat popsicle.”

Although to be fair to the meat popsicle, there just wasn’t good science on masks back then. I mean there wasn’t good science on viruses back then. And also, did you catch that surprising word in the headline from the Sacramento Bee? Here, let’s throw some verbal italics on it.

GIA 3: Campaign Against Gauze Masks Is Without Facts

Gauze masks. That’s what people were wearing.

GARY 9: They were like two ply gauze. They weren’t very effective and gauze was better than some of the masks because in an effort to make it more palatable for women to wear masks, there was recommendations that: Oh, you can make a mask out of chiffon.

And, y’know, people may not have understood much about viruses, but they were getting a pretty good idea of how pointless these masks were. In November of 1918, a group of doctors got together to advocate against the masks. The Salt Lake Herald-Republican reported on some of the highlights of the meeting, including this one:

GIA 4: Dr. Stauffer called attention to the disagreeable features of masking and said sunshine and fresh air are of far more value, as masks are not efficient protection. He suggested that vaccine is far more effective in rendering persons immune.

So, that’s and interesting snapshot of science, isn’t it?—when a doctor is like: guys, stick with me here, I think a vaccine might be a good idea? Meanwhile, a Dr. Edwards of San Francisco gave testimony about his own experience with masks.

GIA 5: He said he had a dozen of them and changed every hour, yet he contracted the disease and was sick three weeks.

So, that was the conversation happening about masks at the time. Now, let’s pick up the timeline. Late 1918, the second wave of the virus strikes. And once again, San Francisco is slow to respond. Fatalities soar in November, and December, and into January, which is when the city finally decides to take some action. And…

GARY 10: they reinstated the mask law on January 17th but they never reinstated the other measures: the closures, the social distancing measures…

Now San Francisco has completed the trifecta of pandemic mismanagement. They reopened the city too early, closed it again too late, and placed their entire preventative focus on wrapping gauze around your face. And here’s when they learned a lesson that we will almost certainly re-learn when the second wave of virus hits us: People might be willing to go along with some preventative measures the first time, but it’s really, really hard to get them to do it a second time. And a century ago, that was especially true because the war was over by that time the second wave hit.

GARY 11: once the war had ended, people were weary of being told, it’s your patriotic duty to wear this mask. When they weren’t at all convinced that it was effective.

So what happened? Well, among other things… the Anti-Mask League happened. This is where we get the Anti-Mask League. It appeared in January of 1919, after San Francisco had experienced months of deaths and then belatedly sprung into action with little more than a new law mandating masks. The anti-maskers held a big meeting. And they conducted some activism around the city. And, yes, as every story about the Anti-Mask League will tell you, they achieved victory… they played a role in rescinding the mask law on February 1. But how much of a victory was it, really?

GARY 12: by February 1st when that law was rescinded, it had very little effect on the epidemic, which had run its course basically by that point.

So in short, the anti-mask league appeared after every possible damage had already been done.

Now, this tale does not give me much confidence. Because, yes, some things are very different between then and now. Our masks are a lot better. Our science is a lot better. But if you think back to the things we’ve heard can make a difference in this episode—say, consistent and participatory leadership, lots of compelling data, and tactics that do not trigger reactance—well, we are not doing much better in 2020 than we did in 1918. It’s a depressing way to look at it.

But I do have a glimmer of hope. Because in the face of everything that’s happening—all of this chaos, all of this disagreement—do you know who’s wearing a mask? Do you know who was told to wear a mask, whose state government has mandated that he wear a mask, and who is actually… wearing the mask? Well, it is Mr. Seatbelt himself!

DAVID 5: my daughter’s an RN, and she’s on the front line. And she said, yeah, you should wear the mask. You’re old enough to die from it, dad. Come on. Don’t be an old fool. Wear the mask. Yeah, yeah. Okay. That’s all right. I’ll wear the mask, but I’m not gonna wear the mask driving around.

Dave, we would expect nothing less. And I—oh wait, he’s got more.

DAVID 6: I don’t like the guys yelling in the face of the police, and I don’t like. I don’t like, I’m not wearing a mask because it infringes on my right to get a God damn haircut. It’s ridiculous. That seems ridiculous to me. Just was shut up and with a mask. Come on.

Right, so anyway as I was—oh, wait, still going.

DAVID 7: A lot of countries shut down the economy, blah, blah, blah. I think it’s a nice break. I like it. What other interesting things going to happen? Where’s the asteroid? How about the alien invasion? Come on: Zombie zombie apocalypse. It’s almost exciting. It really is almost like being in a disaster movie. Tell me. Yeah. Cool. Me and Tom cruise. Excellent. Yeah, that’s just me. Yeah. I, I have an apocalyptic worldview.

See, I told you that guy can talk. So here’s what I take away from all of this. People may not like being told what to do, and they may not trust something they cannot see or understand, but they do respond to trust. I mean, Dave was told to wear a mask, and Dave hates being told what to do… but he’s listening because the mandate came from someone he trusts. It came from his daughter. I mean, it also came from the government of Massachusetts, but I doubt that matters much to him. His daughter however, does matter.

This seems to be our override. This is our primary protection. We seem born with reactance, born with this sense that nobody can tell us what to do, but we have a failsafe. We have some way, equally built into us, equally as biological, that we can save ourselves from ourselves. It is trust. It’s listening to those we truly believe know more than we do, and if necessary, we’re willing to bet our lives on it.

So how do you create change? You build trust. And you do it long before you need to; you start it when lives are not on the line, when there’s no agenda, when there’s nothing more for you to do than stand up and reveal your purpose. If you’re a leader, or a communicator, or an organizer, or just a friend or family member whose job or role or responsibility or desire is to be helpful, then build and lean on that trust. Earn it. Make it unquestionable. Make it pure.

Because holy crap, in times like these, very few people seem to have any idea of what they’re doing, and that leaves us all as individuals to fall back upon the messy and complicated and contradictory instincts buried deep inside us, and please, please, if we need anything right now:

It is someone we can trust.

And that’s our episode! So, a little behind-the-scenes look here—at first, when I heard about the Anti-Mask League and decided to do an episode on it, I wasn’t sure what the episode would be about. Just the league? The history of masks? The history of people opposing medical innovations? Eventually I landed where you just heard, but in the meantime the team here had gathered some fun stuff from throughout medical history—and one of them really gave me pause. I’ll share it with you in a minute, but first…

Do you have an idea for a future episode? Get in touch! There are so many ways to do it. You can reach out on Twitter at @pessimistsarc—pessimists A-R-C, and follow us there too, because we’re always tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. You can visit our website,, which has links to lots of things discussed in this episode, and also an archive of historical pessimism searchable by innovation! And if you’re a fan of Pessimists Archive, then please subscribe, tell a friend, and give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. You can really help us grow.

This episode was recorded as I sat cross-legged on the floor in my parents’ closet in Boulder, Colorado with my foot constantly falling asleep—because, you know, the pandemic. Additional research by Louis Anslow and Britta Lokting. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our webmaster is James Steward. Voices by Gia Mora and Brent Rose. Check them out: And a special thanks to Irina Logra for her help on video—watch the internet, because videos are coming.

Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the Foundation at

OK, so. Like I said, we were rounding up some interesting pessimism from thoughout the history of medicine, and this one really got me thinking a lot. In 1839, when anesthesia was a hotly debated idea but very far from a real thing, the French surgeon Alfred Velpeau said this:

BRENT 5: “The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it today. ‘Knife’ and ‘pain’ are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patent. To this compulsory combination we have to adjust ourselves.”

I went searching for some context for that quote, and discovered a book called The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia, which made a fascinating point. The authors wrote: “We suggest that the most likely explanation for the delay in the discovery of anesthesia was the belief that it did not, could not, exist. If it did not exist, then a search for this dragon would be fruitless.” And hat a lesson for our times, right? When everything at once feels impossible and suddenly possible. Do not ignore the possible, just because you think it might be impossible. Our lives are full of the once impossible.

You know, maybe there’s an episode in that after all. I dunno. You’ll have to stay tuned.

Alright, that’s it for this time. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. I hope you are healthy and safe wherever you are. I’m Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.



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