There is not as much resistance to COVID-19 mitigation as there seems, but there are structural features that make resistance seem worse than it is. Here we describe two ways that the problem seeming to be worse than it is can make it worse. First, visible hesitation to implement COVID-19 responses signals to the wider society that mitigation measures may not succeed, which undermines people’s conditional willingness to join in on those efforts. Second, our evaluations of others’ willingness to implement these measures are informed by our attempts to mind-read them. Yet attempts to mind-read groups often mislead us, because groups invariably act from diverse motives whereas mind-reading works best when identifying relatively stable and consistent motivations. This means that a small minority of people refusing to implement measures can have an outsized prominence that prompts mind-reading to diagnose widespread hesitation. These two factors form a feedback loop with each other: we see some people’s hesitation, which prompts us to mind-read other people as being more uncertain about the responses than they actually are, which undermines our confidence in the responses, which in turn encourages others to mind-read this hesitation, which further undermines confidence.