The Psychology Behind Why Some People Refuse To Wear Face Masks

Absent a vaccine or medication, the only solution we have to combat COVID-19 is to wear a mask.

Even so, some people are resistant to the idea. Controversy over mask usage intensified as states began to reopen and ease up social distancing restrictions ― and then closed down again after recent spikes in new coronavirus cases.

The decision is an easy one for the pro-mask camp: “It’s a piece of cloth!” they argue. “What’s so hard about wearing it? You have a responsibility, as a potential asymptomatic carrier, to not endanger others!”

But non-mask wearers won’t bend. “A mandate encroaches on my personal freedom; it’s my individual right to not wear one.”

How did protective masks become so politicized? We’re quick to put on a seatbelt to protect ourselves and others, so what is about the mask that works people into a tizzy? (On both sides, to be honest; pro-mask Americans are just as fervent in this fight. In Orange County, California, pro-maskers put their personal safety on the line to urge local government to reinstate mask ordinances. Naturally, “anti-mask protesters” were there to meet them.)

David B. Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the School of Global Public Health at New York University, said the stridency of opinions and extreme polarization over masks can be chalked up to one thing: Because this virus and pandemic feels so unfamiliar, we’re clinging hard to whatever makes us feel safe in the moment.

“Humans, like other primates and other mammals, have a strong inherent, underlying survival instinct that gets hyper-stimulated under sudden threat of an unknown enemy,” he told HuffPost. “This leads to what psychologists call ‘hot cognition’ with a strong and powerful set of emotions that completely override and erase the usual rational cool thinking.”

We’re in a “fight or flight” physiological state ― and, for some, “the fight” is directed at government mask ordinances.

“In moments like this, people become hyper-vigilant and super-sensitive to any threat,“ Abrams told HuffPost. “As their adrenal pumps, they respond with massive posturing of anger and a readiness for fight. It is like the rug has been pulled out from under them and the usual world order is gone. Some people become ready for anything.”

That’s what’s driving our behavior on masks on a psychological level, but the rationales we use when validating our decision on mask-wearing or abstaining vary person by person.

“Any human behavior — even seemingly simple behavior, such as wearing a mask or not — is determined by multiple factors: political beliefs, ideology, social factors, education,” said Joseph J. Trunzo, a professor and chair of the psychology department at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

“Layer into this the context and all the changes from moment to moment with this virus, and you very quickly have very complicated reasons for any individual’s behavior choices,” he said.

Reasons vary, but there are some common arguments made by anti-maskers. Below, Abrams, Trunzo and other experts share seven of the most common reasons people refuse to wear a mask.

“So much is uncertain right now. It makes me feel in control to choose to go out without a mask.”

COVID-19 has ushered in one of the most uncertain eras in modern history, and “uncertainty breeds fear, which naturally fuels a need for control,” Trunzo said.

The mask gives us a modicum of control, he said.

“When faced with uncertain situations over which we have no control, we tend to exercise it wherever we can, so we feel safe,” he said. “Some will feel safer exercising their control over not wearing a mask, while others will feel safer exercising their control to wear one.”

If the need for control is the driving force for someone not wearing a mask, empathizing with their feelings of uncertainty can sometimes convince them to put one on, he said. Most of us ― pro-masks, anti-masks ― share that same baseline fear.

“The mandate on wearing masks has been inconsistent. Why should I wear one now?”

Since coronavirus first emerged earlier this year, guidelines on if we should wear masks have been inconsistent at best. Mixed messaging from leadership and the scientific community on proper precautions has made mask-wearing appear up for debate.

Shane G. Owens, a psychologist and the assistant director of campus mental health at Farmingdale State College (SUNY), went so far as to say that scientists and physicians bear a “substantial” part of the blame for our failure to wear masks and to keep our distance because the messaging was muddled.

“In the beginning, they couldn’t manage to say, ‘We don’t know yet’ with this virus,” he said. “The mixed messages we’ve all received are probably the main culprit for non-mask wearing. Inconsistent recommendations, along with historic polarization of political parties, magnify a common mistrust of government mandates.”

Given the widespread distrust in the government and scientific community, Owens said he often wonders if people would have taken the recommendations more seriously if they’d been issued by a “Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz.”

“Someone like that, as opposed to someone standing behind a podium with a seal, who’s worried about reelection,” he said.

Some have decided the "benefits aren’t worth the cost" when it comes to face coverings, experts say.

Some have decided the “benefits aren’t worth the cost” when it comes to face coverings, experts say.

“I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis, and this pandemic doesn’t personally affect me enough to wear one.”

People who wear masks aren’t necessarily natural-born rule followers, but they’ve decided, for a variety of reasons ― personal welfare, their family’s health or just a desire to get this contained already ― that the benefit of following restrictive guidelines outweighs the costs.

Those who decide not to wear masks have gamed out that same cost-benefit analysis.

“In many cases, they’ve concluded that based on their assessment of the situation, that the benefits aren’t worth the cost,” said Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University.

Though coronavirus infection rates remain high, some mask rejecters have yet to see a friend or family member contract COVID-19. They can afford to be cynical about mask-wearing; the debate over face coverings is more of a thought exercise, since the coronavirus hasn’t touched them in any concrete way. It’s something that’s happened to other people.

Many don’t have that luxury. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected those in the Black and Latinos communities. While many Americans have jobs that allow the option of working from home, those two groups are over-represented in essential service jobs that heighten their risk for exposure.

“Preliminary reports do suggest that there could be differences in mask-wearing based on race and ethnicity,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate chair and professor of health science at Ball State University. “Many racial minorities are taking low-paying essential service work. They have to go out to make a living, which is why they may be more likely to wear a mask.”

“I’m young and won’t catch it.”

Call it the invisibility argument: Because older people are more likely than younger people to die of COVID-19, some (but surely not all) younger Americans feel more brazen about going out in public without a mask. The existential threat just isn’t the same for them, Khubchandani said.

“It’s true that some younger individuals perceive lower risk and have higher risk behaviors than older populations,” he said. “That risky behavior includes mask-wearing.”

It’s worth noting, as the first wave of the virus begins to resurge, the average age of U.S. coronavirus patients is shifting lower.

Some feel that the mask makes them look weak, experts said.

Some feel that the mask makes them look weak, experts said.

“Wearing a mask encroaches on my civil liberties.”

Not wearing a mask can be an expression of resistance or defiance: “You can’t tell me what to do,” they might say. “I don’t believe the government or health experts. The virus isn’t that serious. As an American, I value my individual freedom and don’t want to be told what to do.”

For them, the request to wear a mask is a constitutional overreach, Khubchandani.

“Democracy is a double-edged sword in the case of mask-wearing,” he said.
“There are legal issues, constitutional rights, individual freedom and civil liberties that have to be accounted for. And, unlike other public health laws (e.g. seat belts in cars), this is a situation where the public is required to observe a behavior without a conventional law-making process (debate, discussion, proposal, voting, approval, act of law).”

Owens said there’s a way to get through to someone with this mindset.

“If you’re dealing with a person who reveres civil liberties, you can point out that government mandates and choosing life and liberty are, in this case, the same thing,” he said. “These days, the best way to live a long and free life is to wear a mask, keep your distance and ask that everyone else do the same.”

“It makes me look weak or unmasculine.”

The optics of mask-wearing is an issue for some ― including President Donald Trump. According to The Associated Press, Trump has told aides that he won’t wear a mask in public out of concern that it will project weakness and defeat ― that he would be preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening.

In early April, while announcing the recommendation from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks be worn in public spaces, the president said he wouldn’t be following his administration’s guidance: “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know,” he said. “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”

Apparently, he’s not alone. Researchers have found that men are more likely to opt out of wearing masks, believing them to be “shameful,” “a sign of weakness,” and “not cool” — in spite of the data showing that men are at higher risk than women of dying of a coronavirus infection.

“Making the situation worse, they also have lower perceived vulnerability to disease,” Khubchandani said.

“I don’t see our government leaders wearing one. It can’t be that bad.”

Abrams said that watching what others do is one of the most powerful forms of rapid learning of new behaviors. Even as campaign staffers and Secret Service personnel come down with the virus, Trump remains mask-free. Vice President Mike Pence, who has encouraged mask-wearing recently, sometimes wears one, but he’s just as likely to forgo one.

“Wearing a mask wouldn’t just be helpful here; it’s essential to have leaders who are on the same page for guidance and as clear role models, especially when people are hyper-vigilant, have strong hot emotions, and are looking for guidance with an unknown threat and are doubting science,” Abrams said.

For many, Trump’s and Pence’s blatant disregard for their administration’s own advice on mask-wearing speaks volumes: If they’re not wearing masks, the threat must not be so bad, so why should I put one on?

“I think the image of Vice President Pence not wearing a mask while actually touring the Mayo Clinic and standing next to sick patients (or older war veterans) is burned into many minds. And the hospital medical staff and chief doctor allowed him to do that?” Abrams said. “Then add to that Trump’s lack of modeling mask-wearing behavior. These pictures are worth a thousand words.”

Vice President Mike Pence visits the molecular testing lab on April 28 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Pence chose not to wear a face mask, an apparent violation of the medical center's policy.

Vice President Mike Pence visits the molecular testing lab on April 28 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Pence chose not to wear a face mask, an apparent violation of the medical center’s policy.

Here are a few ways to try to get through to a non-mask wearer

Effective communication with someone who disagrees with you on masks will depend on whom you’re trying to convince. The reality is some will remain steadfast in refusing to wear a mask.

That said, if you’re trying to convince someone who reveres science but is confused by inconsistent messages, Owens said it might be helpful to “point out that states with stay-at-home and mask directives have minimized the disease’s spread.”

More often than not, it’s better to leave politics out of the mask discussion, he added.

“By making the mask issue political, you automatically turn off almost half of the people you’re trying to convince,” he said.

The single best way to get people to wear masks is to model that behavior.

“Whenever you’re out, wear your mask securely over your mouth and nose,” Owens said. “Use peer pressure to your advantage.”

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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