[A version of this article appeared in Psychology Today on 28 October 2020 ]
Boo! Scared you.
Yes, it’s Halloween. That season when children wear masks and we all pretend to be terrified of them. But as with just about everything else this year, COVID has turned convention on its head. Now, instead of freaking out over baby Frankensteins, we become genuinely jumpy when adults among us refuse to wear their masks.
Guys. They’re just masks.
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Of course, in a time of COVID, there is no such thing as “just” this or “just” that anymore. Every issue, no matter how banal, presents an opportunity for societal meltdown. The relatively simple proposition that the spread of a highly contagious airborne infection might be impeded by — who knew — covering our mouths and noses has become a tribal honour cause. A front in the culture war. A test of political loyalty.
But still, guys, seriously. They’re just masks.
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Once it became clear that the coronavirus could spread even when carriers have no symptoms (and so might not realise that they are carriers), public health authorities have consistently advised people to wear masks to combat COVID-19.
So why do some people — around 20% of adults — decline to wear them? Drawing on experiences with other areas of health behaviour, psychologists have been discussing a number of possible reasons. Typically these relate to risk, uncertainty, control, and culture:
- People are more likely to wear a mask if they live in a community with high infection rates. In general, direct familiarity with disease risk makes people more risk-averse — an effect linked to availability bias, our habit of prioritising threats that we can easily call to mind.
- People dislike ambiguity. Before the transmission pattern of COVID was fully understood, medical authorities differed about the need to wear masks. With health advice, people often respond to uncertainty with inaction. If they are not sure that masks really are effective, they just won’t wear them.
- In a global crisis, there is little any individual can do to fix the world. However, we can control our own face. For some people, refusing to wear a mask is a way of taking control of their situation. Paradoxically, mask-refusal might not be as brazen as it appears — it might be a sign that a person is deeply anxious about the whole COVID situation.
- Humans are wise enough to crowdsource when it matters. In cultures where mask-wearing is well established, there is usually little discussion about the issue. People just wear them. This suggests that social influence plays a key role. Likewise, people may refuse masks for the same reason — they do it because their peer-group dislikes them.
But unlike most other public health interventions, COVID masks have become a politically explosive cause. Clearly, there is more to this than just risk perception and health behaviour.
Psychologically, masks are especially sensitive. Both directly and indirectly, they strike at the heart of our identity.
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Psychologists often note that human beings have two types of self-image. First, we have a personal identity, those individual characteristics and attributes that comprise our personality. But importantly, we also have a social identity — in fact, we have several of them– those aspects of the ‘self’ which relate to the many groups we belong to.
The most obvious groups include our nationality, our community, or the place we come from. Several groups emerge from tastes and leisure: a person may see themselves as a ‘Liverpool fan’, for example. And many social identities relate to political attitudes, such as where people consider themselves to be environmentalists, libertarians, monarchists, socialists, or even feminists.
The point is that we each belong to many groups. Therefore, we see ourselves differently depending on the context. When asked about sport, we see ourselves as Liverpool fans. When asked about elections, we see ourselves as socialists.
And when asked about COVID masks, we are liable to see ourselves as “pro-mask” or “anti-mask” depending on what social identity we think fits us the best.
As human beings, we have a perennial need to identify ourselves in tribal terms.
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This is why mask-wearing has become a totemic cause in the culture war. There is little doubt that people who hold socially conservative political views are far less likely to wear COVID masks. The American president has effectively campaigned against them. A conservative senator in Ohio declared that because human faces were “created in the image and likeness of God”, covering them with masks — even in the interest of public health — would be sacrilegious.
Mask-refusers also score high on psychological tests for “callousness, deceitfulness, hostility, impulsivity, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, and risk-taking”, traits that usually make up a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. In the United States, a Major League Baseball player became a hero of the anti-maskers when he launched a Twitter tirade against COVID face coverings. He considered death preferable to “wearing a damn mask”, and demanded that people who wished to avoid infection — such as those with underlying health conditions — should just “stay the fuck home.”
Men are more likely to be mask-refusers than women, even though men are more likely to die from COVID-19. But then men are more likely to ignore public health advice in general, and have been for many decades. It’s part of their social identity, it seems.
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Studies have revealed a number of striking aspects of how changing our physical appearance can influence our social identity. For example, some research has suggested that wearing a white laboratory coat improves people’s concentration when they are completing detailed tasks (although such examples of “embodied cognition” are often hard to replicate).
And in a particularly relevant experiment, children who wore Halloween masks were found to become much more likely to steal candy — and even money — than when their anonymity was taken away. This study is seen as important because it shows how antisocial behaviour can be driven by situations rather than by innate antisocial tendencies.
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The psychology of identity is certainly not trivial, especially these days. Essentially, there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, tackling COVID will require our self-interest to overlap with the interests of others. As I wrote recently, taking the right measures to deal with the pandemic will require a prevailing sense of altruism and good citizenship. Wearing a mask to limit your risk of infecting other people is a perfect example.
Without such collective collaboration, all efforts to get over COVID will fail in the long run.
And secondly, let’s not forget that you don’t just need to wear a mask in order to become anonymous. Today millions of people can — and do — mask their identities online.
The problem is that online anonymity protects people from the social disapproval of others. Just like when kids wearing Halloween masks are left alone with the candy, the anonymity provided by social media removes all inhibition.
These days, millions of people have daily opportunities to express anonymous outrage, to promote anonymous conspiracy theories, or to pursue anonymous grudges. It is one of the main reasons that hate speech is so common in the comments sections of online newspapers. The unleashing of uninhibited online indignation has helped to normalise toxicity in our 21st-century discourse.
Sometimes giving people masks really can be terrifying.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.