The Psychology Behind Why Some People Wear Face Masks – And Others Don't

Confusion, embarrassment, discomfort. Psychologists tell HuffPost UK what may stop people wearing a mask.

Face masks are quite divisive. When you look at photos of people hitting the beach, rushing to stores or taking buses all over the world where masks are mandatory, there’s a split of those who wear them – and those who don’t.

A YouGov poll from June suggests more people aren’t wearing them than are. It found under a quarter (21%) of Brits wear a mask or cover when out in public. We’re less likely to wear them than many other countries, too – only those in Scandinavia and Australia are less likely to wear masks than Brits, the poll found.

It’s a topic that needs exploring, perhaps, as research suggests a lockdown on its own won’t be enough to stop a second wave of coronavirus. Researchers believe the widespread use of face masks, in addition to lockdown and social distancing, is key to keeping the reproduction rate below 1.

So why are some people happy to wear face masks, but others aren’t? We asked psychologists.

Physical (dis)comfort

Professor Tony Cassidy, an expert in child and family health psychology at Ulster University, believes comfort – or rather, discomfort – is a key factor. Some might have a mask that fits comfortably, but, he tells HuffPost UK, “masks can be too tight or loose and they can cause sweating or even difficulty breathing”.

This means anyone who is claustrophobic or maskaphobic will be unable to tolerate masks or face coverings. “Maskaphobia [a fear of masks] is surprisingly common among children,” he adds.

Feeling self-conscious

A YouGov survey in partnership with Imperial College London, conducted in May, looked at what was putting people off wearing masks. Of those who didn’t wear one, the vast majority (76%) said it was due to concerns about feeling uncomfortable – as Prof Cassidy mentioned above.

But many people also felt self conscious (52%), silly (52%) and embarrassed (47%) about wearing a mask.

Not being able to communicate

Masks, or face covers, can also be quite intrusive – “eating an ice cream or having a drink is impeded,” says Prof Cassidy.

When our faces are half-covered by masks, we lose key non-verbal information, Professor Kathleen Pike, an expert in psychology at Columbia University, explained in a blog post on mask-wearing. We also lose other information, like raised eyebrows, and shoulder shrugs become highly ambiguous without cues from the mouth.

“The effect leaves us feeling less able to communicate and less able to understand each other,” she wrote.

Shoppers in Scotland. Some are wearing masks, others aren't.
Shoppers in Scotland. Some are wearing masks, others aren't.

Confusion about whether they work

There’s been a lack of consistency in information about mask wearing and their benefits, and this has led to confusion, explains Prof Cassidy. The UK government didn’t recommend the use of face covers until almost two months into lockdown – and even then, it was a tentative recommendation.

Back in March, the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said of masks: “For the average member of the public wandering down the street, it is really not a good idea.” Since then, the government has not only recommended their use in places where social distancing is difficult to manage, but has made wearing them mandatory on public transport and in hospitals in England.

The latest government line is that face coverings provide some “small additional protection” to others and prevent people spreading the virus if they’re asymptomatic.

A threat to freedom

Reluctance to wear a mask could be a replay of what happened in previous pandemics, suggests Professor Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology Of Pandemics.

“During the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic in 1919 in San Francisco, for example, the Anti-Mask League was formed, in reaction to efforts by local government to make it mandatory to wear face masks,” he says.

The objections raised against wearing face masks were similar to those we see today, Prof Taylor says: 1) concern there isn’t strong evidence that masks are protective, and 2) that the mandatory wearing of them is perceived by some as a threat to their freedom. “In highly individualistic societies, attempts to compel people to do things can lead to pushback when people perceive their liberties to be threatened,” he explains.

This is known as psychological reactance. Some people have little reactance, while others have a lot. “The people strongly opposed to wearing face masks are also likely to oppose other threats to their freedom, such as enforced social distancing protocols,” says Prof Taylor.

Some “macho individuals” also worry about being perceived as weak if they wear masks, he adds, and believe it’s an admission of fear and vulnerability.

Racism and racial profiling

Dr Mollie Ruben, a research assistant professor at Northeastern University who is researching the psychological effects of mask wearing in the US, says some people don’t feel safe wearing masks due to racial profiling.

In the US, an Oregon county made people of colour exempt from its mandatory mask policy – citing the potential for racial profiling. However, the exemption was removed after a backlash. “The very policy meant to protect them, is now making them a target for further discrimination and harassment,” leaders said.

Prof Taylor also says people with racist attitudes may be reluctant to wear masks “because mask-wearing is perceived as being an Asian cultural practice”.

Perceived risk

Prof Taylor believes some people – younger adults, he says – perceive the risk of Covid-19 as being “overblown”.

“If people see the risk as overblown, then they are unlikely to comply with wearing face masks,” he says. “Some people underestimate the seriousness of Covid-19 because this pandemic, unlike previous pandemics is largely hidden.”

Taylor believes if political leaders lead by example, there might be a shift in public perception of wearing masks in the UK. “The behaviour of our leaders has a powerful influence on the behaviour of the populace,” he says.

“If our community leaders want to increase the use of mask wearing in the UK, US, or elsewhere, they should label mask wearing as an act of community spirit, solidarity, and patriotism. That is, you’re serving your community and your country if you do your bit to reduce infection by wearing a mask.”