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Unmasking the 'Wear a Mask' Dilemma: Psychological Reasons for Not Wearing a Mask
July 13th, 2020

Written by Dr. Moe Gelbart, Executive Director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center

Our scientific community has been clear and consistent on the several things we can do to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic: practice social distancing, handwashing, and wearing a mask or face covering. The wearing of masks seems to have become a battleground for some, and I wanted to address some of the psychological reasons for not wearing a mask when the safety and prevention issue is so clearly indicated. For the most part, this blog will address the psychological, not political reasons of mask wearing, though sometimes these two invariably intersect.

So, what are the reasons people choose to not wear a mask? We have to first understand all behavior is motivated not only by facts, but by the meaning we give to facts/events, and the self-narrative we create. That is essential to know, because it is what allows us to behave differently, when the narrative changes. Underlying reasons for making this choice include:

Denial: Many people are tired and fatigued with the COVID-19 impact, and strongly desire to believe it is better, over, not dangerous. Wearing a mask interferes with that belief system and keeps them worried and anxious. Not wearing a mask allows them to validate to themselves we are in the clear.

Sense of Invulnerability: Many people, especially younger individuals, believe nothing bad will happen to them, and even if they contract the virus, they will not have any significant problems. Neurologically, people age 13-25 have brains which are still developing, and are prone to risk taking behavior.

Behavioral drift when it comes to preventive measures. It is difficult for some to maintain behaviors when it is for prevention, as opposed to when it is for treatment or cure. As an example, if someone hurts their back, and is prescribed stretching exercises to get better, they will usually comply with those exercises. However, when they are recommended to keep up the exercises on a regular basis, to avoid future problems, they are less likely to maintain that regimen. There is clearly behavioral drift when the situation is not acute.

Issues Related to Authority: Some people have a built-in opposition to authority and rebel against anyone telling them what to do. They feel being told to wear a mask violates their basic rights. Some have a mistrust of science and believe they are being manipulated for some gain other than what seems apparent. On the other hand, some people find a connection to power and authority, and vicariously gain a sense of meaning and importance when they identify with a powerful figure. This is certainly going on in our society today, and for some, the mask/no mask choice is the uniform of the “tribe” they identify with.

Meaning of Covering One’s Face: Face coverings are generally associated with the “bad guy” in our culture – the bank robber or criminal with a face mask, the villain in Western lore. There is a sense of something to hide or something to be ashamed of. Unconsciously, some may feel they are associating themselves with that by wearing a mask. Facial expressions are greatly relied upon to understand and read others through their facial expressions. Wearing masks takes away those non-verbal cues which can be important.

Admission of Fear and Vulnerability: This is related to the issue of denial. Wearing a mask, for some, validates the sense of fear, anxiety and vulnerability to this serious problem in our midst. Some feel wearing a mask demonstrates to the world they are afraid, and conversely, by going mask free, they are strong and fearless.

Selfish and Self-Centered. We are told wearing a mask is for the protection of others, not for ourselves. Some people do not find that as enough motivation. They may feel they are in a low risk population, due to their age, their good health, etc., and protection for their friends, neighbors, and parents or grandparents is not enough reason for them to do something they do not want to do.

As previously stated, all behavior is related to a risk/reward formula, based on our perceptions and the narratives we tell ourselves. Sometimes, we are limited by our understanding of our motives, and anything which brings new light and new information to us helps us clarify our choices and better understand our reasoning for doing things. I’d like to share a parable which I find inspiring:

Once upon a time there was an old man who used to walk on the beach every morning. One morning, after a particularly bad storm, he found the beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, he noticed a little boy, stopping every so often to pick up an object, and throw it into the sea. As the boy came closer, the man asked “what are you doing?” The boy replied “throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up on the beach, they can’t return to the sea by themselves, and when the sun gets high, they will die unless I throw them back into the water”. The man said “there are tens of thousands of starfish….I’m afraid you won’t really make much of a difference”. The boy bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. He smiled, and said “it made a difference to that one.”

We are all in this together. I hope that some of this information will assist you in thinking about the choices you make, and help make choices that are best for yourself, and for all of us.