IEEE PULSE presents

Unmasked Behavior

COVID-19 Crisis Response, July/August 2020
Author: Pamela Reynolds
Faced with the evidence, scientists ponder why everyone doesn’t wear a mask

After initial assertions that the wearing of face masks was an unnecessary public health tool in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, the advice coming out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suddenly changed. In early April, the CDC issued new guidelines advising people to wear face coverings in public settings where social distancing is difficult.

“CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others,” the CDC published on its website.

With the new recommendations, the public got busy—either creating do-it-yourself masks at home or buying fashion statement masks off of websites like Etsy. A large swath of the public has accepted the recommendations, including many of those marching against police brutality in cities across the United States in early June. There have been, however, rebels who have balked. Even Vice President Mike Pence appeared on 28 April at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota mask-less, boldly defying the hospital’s policy that all visitors wear masks. (He later apologized for the oversight.) That episode seems to epitomize the grand problem of the moment: some people are refusing to wear masks for inexplicable reasons. Why, and what can be done about it?

Behavioral scientists hold many theories about why some of us may be more reluctant to don a mask than others, and in these times even politics seems to play a role. New research suggests Trump supporters are less likely to wear masks and practice social distancing than others. A national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in late April and early May revealed that public trust in medical scientists has grown, but mainly among Democrats. Only 31% of Republicans said they trusted medical scientists compared to 53% of Democrats.

Peter Glick, a professor in the social sciences at Lawrence University and a senior scientist with the Neuroleadership Institute in New York, says his research suggests that some of the unmasked among us associate masks with weakness. Glick wrote in Scientific American that wearing a mask “contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness. In short, wearing a mask emasculates.”

In line with this view, David Abrams, a clinical psychologist and professor of social and behavioral science at New York University’s School of Global Public Health told CNN that some may feel wearing a mask admits vulnerability. Putting on a mask, he says, suggests that “Hey, I’m a scaredy cat.”

Some people don’t like to advertise that kind of vulnerability and a number of people just naturally want to rebel when told what to do, said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and author of The Psychology of Pandemics in the same piece. “People value their freedoms. They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.”

Those kinds of associations—restrictions on freedom, an advertisement of vulnerability—may lead some people to rebel against what would otherwise seem like a common-sense measure.

“If you are wearing a mask to protect yourself from others, you are forming a habit of fear,” Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University told the Washington Post. “Every time you put a mask on, every time you see someone else wearing one, you will reinforce this fear.”

But there’s no reason, Bucar continues, that fear must be the only meaning of wearing a mask. “If you are wearing the mask to protect others, wearing it will create a feeling of connection to those in your community,” she says.

And herein lies the potential for convincing the maskless among us to don a face covering. It’s not just wearing a piece of cloth over the nose and mouth, but what it means in a social context. In order to move more people to wear masks we may have to adopt a more communal, less individualistic view of our world and our role in it. Renee C. Wurth, a population health scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argued in The Guardian, that the reason some Asian countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have had some of the best results in fighting the coronavirus, may not simply be because mask-wearing was widely accepted even before the coronavirus, but because those countries have “community-oriented cultures” demonstrating that “unified social behaviors and personal sacrifices are effective in defeating a virus that thrives in chaos.” It is the ubiquity of wearing masks that makes them protective. “Masks work because they are worn on top of layers of well-perfected behaviors,” she writes.

Those who actively refuse to wear masks (rather than just forgetting a mask on the dining room table in the rush out the door), may identify so strongly with a particular social group that they reject the wider societal norms. Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, told NBC News that when beliefs become shared by social groups and are part of how we identify that they are very difficult to change, even in the face of scientific evidence.

“Sharing beliefs is one of the ways we bond with others, and the desire to bond with others is so strong that often it distorts the objective evaluation of information.”

But bond with others we must if we are to live in a functioning society. And we must bond not only with those who agree with what we think and believe, but bond with those outside the tight social group with whom we identify. We must bond with others on the basis of our mutual humanity.

“I am not a social scientist, but I do think there is something that is powerful about the universal signaling if everyone wears a mask,” Siddhartha Mukherjee, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University and author of The Gene: An Intimate History and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer told The New Yorker.

“You can’t force people to adopt behaviors in this country, although you can make it very uncomfortable for people who show up without masking because of social pressures,” he said. “But I don’t think it should be compulsory. I do think that, given the seriousness of what is going on, given the paralysis in the economy, and the desire for people to get back to work, I think there should be some sense of social responsibility, and if it really decreases the chance of infecting others and yourself, and if people agree universally to wear it, I think we could potentially convince the vast majority of the people to wear a mask.”

In the end, convincing people to wear a mask may simply come down to nicely explaining that none of us lives on the planet alone. The actions of just one person, like it or not, can affect the health and well-being of many others. Just as people stopped smoking on planes and restaurants, just as they started using designated drivers to get home from the bar and they allowed themselves to be x-rayed at airports, it may simply come down to setting forth expectations of new behaviors and allowing time for it to all sink in. In seeding this new change, Mukherjee suggests that perhaps the government needs to be clearer in its guidelines surrounding masks.

“It would seem to me that, rather than the President saying to cover your mouth with a scarf, having a scientific, centralized way to distribute it, produce it free of charge, and make everyone wear it, and have a decontamination protocol would be crucial.”

Further Reading

  1. P. Glick, “Masks and emasculation: Why some men refuse to take safety precautions,” Sci. Amer., Apr. 30, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/masks-and-emasculation-why-some-men-refuse-to-take-safety-precautions/
  2. J. L. Berdahl, P. Glick, and M. Cooper, “How masculinity contests undermine organizations, and what to do about it,” Harvard Business Rev., Nov. 2, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://hbr.org/2018/11/how-masculinity-contests-undermine-organizations-and-what-to-do-about-it
  3. J. Cohen, “Not wearing masks to protect against coronavirus is a ‘big mistake,’ top Chinese scientist says,” Science, Mar. 27, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/not-wearing-masks-protect-against-coronavirus-big-mistake-top-chinese-scientist-says?mod=article_inline
  4. S. Andrew, “The psychology behind why some people won’t wear masks,” CNN, May 6, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/06/health/why-people-dont-wear-masks-wellness-trnd/index.html

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