Some People don’t Wear Masks. Why Not?

Many people are wearing masks these days. Some refuse to go out without a mask. Some insist that anyone who comes to their house cover the lower part of their face with a cloth mask.

Then there are the others. Those who resist the whole concept of wearing a mask. Some of these people see it as a personal affront of they are required to wear a mask to enter a store or a business. They are not persuaded by laws and mandates compelling the wearing of masks.

This is true in the United States, but it is also observed in other countries.

For instance, a recent article by Natasha Hinde explored this phenomenon in Britain. Ms. Hinde cites a YouGov poll from June, 2020 that found that more people aren’t wearing a mask than those who are. She also found that mask-resistors are not unique to America and Great Britain. People in Scandinavia and Australia are less likely to wear masks than those in England.

Why is this so – especially since scientists are unanimous in recommending the wearing of masks, along with social distancing? Why are some people seemingly unconcerned about preventing further outbreaks of Covid-19?

Who is best to address these questions? Ms. Hinde turned to psychologists to seek answers.

According to Professor Tom Cassidy, an expert in child and family health psychology at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, it is comfort, or rather discomfort, that is a key factor for many non-users of masks. These people seems to be especially sensitive to the discomfort of ill-fitting masks and the unpleasantness of the sweating or problems breathing that comes with the wearing of masks. There may, indeed, Cassidy indicates, be some people who feel claustrophobic when wearing a mask. And this can be true for some children.

Another poll conducted in May, 2020, by YouGov and Imperial College London, found that some people felt self-conscious, silly or embarrassed about wearing a mask.

But there are other factors that lead to mask reluctance. For example, Professor Kathleen Pike, an expert in psychology at Columbia University, has written that for some people wearing a mask interferes with communication. That is, some people feel like they lose certain information when trying to communicate with others. The mouth apparently offers clues to what people are saying or what the meaning is behind what they are saying. In effect, Professor Pike pointed out, some people are less able to understand others.

Professor Cassidy has also pointed to the lack of consistency in the messages that have been handed out to the public in Great Britain as well as in the U.S. If government officials were consistent in their face mask messaging, more people might accept the wearing of masks as important and necessary.

Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and the author of a book entitled The Psychology of Pandemics (Cambridge College Publishing, 2019), compares the resistance against mask-wearing today to what happened in previous pandemics. He points out that in 1919 in San Francisco, an Anti-Mask League was formed after it became mandatory to wear masks in that city. This league raised concerns similar to those we see today. Those objections included the idea that there was no strong evidence that masks would offer much protection and that being forced to wear a mask was a threat to individual freedom.

Taylor characterizes these attitudes as psychological reactance. Taylor says that some people have little reactance, while others have a lot. For example, people who are strongly resistant to wearing a mask may be more threatened by various threats to their freedom. The same people who are opposed to mandates to wear a mask are equally concerned about rules requiring social distancing.

One other factor mentioned by Steven Taylor is that some “macho individuals” also worry about being perceived as weak if they wear masks. For these people, wearing a mask is like publicly admitting that they are fearful or vulnerable.

Dr. Mollie Ruben, a research assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston, is researching the psychological effects of wearing a mask. She says that some people don’t feel safe wearing masks due to racial profiling. That is, some people of color are reluctant to wear masks because non-Black people may see Blacks wearing masks as more threatening and suspicious. Steven Taylor adds that some people with racist attitudes may be avoid wearing a mask because mask-wearing is perceived as being an Asian cultural practice.

Finally, Taylor says that one other reason some people refuse to wear a mask is that they believe the health risks are overblown. It may true of younger people than they underestimate the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic because, in part, they have not seen firsthand the results of suffering from the coronavirus.

But, Taylor believes, based on his study of previous pandemics, that if political leaders lead by example there could be a shift in the public perception of wearing masks. And both in the U.S. and other countries, more people may be influenced in their behavior by mask-wearing behavior of leaders.

To read the full article by Natasha Hinde, go to here.

Written by James Windell, MA
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