• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

The Psychology Behind Mask Wearing Behavior

Rushil Jain, BASIS Scottsdale, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been several concerns regarding wearing masks, politically, socially, or scientifically, influenced by nationwide mask mandates in countries such as the United States. Initially, communities across the world entered a state of isolation and lockdown in response to the fear of the pandemic and to slow the rapid transmission of the disease. However, approximately two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we see a phenomenon known as “Pandemic Rebellion” - defined as the tendency for individuals to ignore policies designed to curb the pandemic and rather follow their free-will (Dominican University of California, 2021). With more research being conducted, psychology is beginning to play an important role in people’s perception of mask-wearing. According to several psychological research studies from institutions such as Kent State University (2021) and Clemson University (2021), a large factor contributing to people’s resistance to mask-wearing is the belief undermining the severity of contracting the virus, with many citing factors including behavioral freedom and mental fatigue for this increased resistance (The Conversation, 2020). Through this close analysis regarding the psychology behind masks, the decline in mask-wearing as the pandemic stretches further is justified, creating negative implications in regard to global health.

Two and a half years into the pandemic, we see individuals at the grocery store, amusement park, or school maskless, extremely rare in late 2020 or early 2021. A survey from December 2020 showed that 73% of American adults wear masks in public (KFF, 2020). At the beginning of the pandemic, signs such as standing six feet apart were displayed, and the general public often adhered to these rules. The entertainment and transportation industries lost significant revenue, showing the initial destructive effects of the pandemic due to fear of contracting the virus. Over time, surprisingly, many started to turn against their initial fear and rebel against mask mandates, a phenomenon known as “Pandemic Rebellion” and “psychological reactance”, in which individuals no longer wear masks because of factors such as fatigue and annoyance, going against authority and pursuing free-will (Dominican University of California, 2021; Michigan Psychological Association 2021).

Figure 1: This poll of U.S. adults illustrates the psychological differences perceived about public interaction between individuals who commonly wear masks as opposed to those who do not (Morning Consult, 2020).

The American poll’s results highlight another significant reason why more and more individuals are quickly turning their backs away from mask wearing, allowing for easier socialization and individual freedom. According to a study conducted by the Unit for Visually Impaired People (2021), masks indeed protect you from contracting COVID-19; however, mask wearing leads to the inability to decipher another individual’s emotions, leading to severe developmental delays and emotional detachment for many young adolescents (Kent State Department of Psychology, 2021).

In contrary, there are still individuals who, even after getting the vaccine, are hesitant to roam around mask-free in public. The CDC announced early 2022 that mask mandates in indoor settings are no longer necessary. However, some individuals are still not ready to let go just yet. According to psychological expert Dr. Max Wachtel, the feeling of being maskless leads to discomfort and nervousness since wearing masks for over two years has become an ingrained habit that we cannot easily disintegrate. Just like online ordering, distance learning, and virtual meetings, wearing a mask has led to comfort over time, and so, removing masks after the vaccine has created anxiety for many (9NEWS Psychology, 2021).

Those who defiantly decide not to wear masks have their own reasons. Many psychologists claim this behavior reflects “psychological reactance,” in which individuals “rebel” against threats to their behavioral freedom (James Madison University, 2019). Another factor contributing to increased psychological reactance is the interaction between governments and citizens around the world, as politicians have shown mixed policies about mask-wearing (Michigan Psychological Association, 2021). This further contributes to some people associating masks with inferiority or weakness, also fueling racial tensions (Northeastern University, 2021). The recent mask mandates ironically have strengthened psychological reactance as people underestimate the risks associated with contracting the virus due to vaccination status or pandemic length (Kent State University, 2021). Alternatively, much evidence points towards masks being effective at preventing COVID infection. The National Library of Medicine states that droplets can travel almost 26 feet when an individual coughs, sneezes, or talks. If such droplets contain virus content, the usage of masks in close proximity reduces the risk of infection (NIH, 2021). Subsequent studies on mask wearing point in favor of N95/KN95 respirators or surgical masks leading to fewer positive COVID-19 cases compared to no protective face covering (CDC, 2022).

Keeping in mind these major findings, the importance of masks in preventing COVID-19 is highlighted with ample evidence. The focus on the phenomenon of “Pandemic Rebellion” is well explored through various poll results and public opinion, bringing out the common trend of tiredness and annoyance at this point in the pandemic. However, perhaps one being seen maskless should not directly be labeled as defiant to public health and a victim of “Pandemic Rebellion”. What is not discussed in these studies is the adverse effects of continuous mask usage, including constant headaches and physical and mental burdens (ClinMed, 2020). What about individuals with prior health-related issues? Pre-existing lung conditions can worsen as a result of wearing masks (American Lung Association, 2020). What can be done for these individuals to protect themselves? Community outreach and education, not discussed in these research findings, are absolutely necessary to raise scientific awareness about the pandemic and virus to lower transmission and improve health.

In the midst of this rebellion, there are certain steps to increase mask-wearing to reduce virus transmission. Implementing a consensus to highlight positive opinions and statistics for masks will greatly encourage others to resume mask-wearing due to the importance of unity and conformity (The Conversation, 2020). Emphasizing emotion and promoting mask-wearing through government programs is also crucial (The Conversation, 2020). Thinking about the future in terms of pandemics and diseases yet to come, this ethical dilemma behind prevention measures such as wearing masks will surely be a growing issue with increasing calls for freedom and independence overtaking science. But, with a little effort from our community, we can work together to alleviate this growing problem of not masking up when needed.


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Article Thumbnail: Covid Mask. (2020, August 19). [Photograph].