Mask opinions through a psychological lens

Addison Howard sporting their mask. Photo
courtesy of Willow Newell, Viking Fusion

Face masks represent one of the most visible and impactful changes to students’ everyday lives brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like others around the world, Berry students are now living in a world of mandatory face coverings, bringing the accessory from a fringe medical device to everyday clothing in nearly an instant. These changes, however, have faced some opposition. Recent national news reports and social media posts detail so-called “mask wars,” and confrontations between those who wear a face covering and those who don’t. The tension is especially high at stores and other establishments that require masks for entry, as some customers feel their personal rights are violated by the new rules. 

According to Victor Bissonnette, associate professor of psychology, the tension around masks stems from their role in identity. 

“In today’s world, we’ve got this powerful culture war going on,” Bissonnette said. “We’ve got this intertwining of very strong political beliefs with this issue.” 

He added that masks have become tied to tribal identities. For instance, some see mask usage, or non-usage, as a sign of one’s political beliefs or affiliation. Bissonnette compared the new mask mandates and their public reception to the introduction of seatbelt laws and smoke-free air laws in the past. However, he noted that he believes there is a larger culture war, or cultural divide, taking place and affecting society to a greater extent than in the recent past. 

“It’s really this idea of: are you going to trust objective, scientific, empirical evidence as how you look at the world, how you think, how you make decisions, or are you going to trust authority figures that you respect, that you admire,” Bissonnette said. “What’s going on with mask wearing is about more than mask wearing. The mask is becoming a symbol that transcends simply whether or not you’re covering your mouth.” 

Michelle Haney, chair of the psychology department, said the key factor behind resistance to face masks is the lack of a social norm for mask wearing. She said that people typically follow those around them, and especially those they consider to be their leaders, so when people in society follow different leaders and receive different messages, it becomes difficult to construct a new behavioral norm. 

“The polarizing part [of masks] is probably really attributed to who people respect and align with and the messaging that is intentionally and unintentionally being given,” Haney said. “We are social creatures, clearly, and there’s a lot of social modelling, and modelling our own behaviors, and what we perceive as normative is based on who we consider to be the leader of our community, the spokesperson for us.” 

Haney also emphasized that with consistent messaging, she is confident mask wearing can become normalized and accepted. She added that leaders can utilize cognitive dissonance, or individuals’ dislike of having beliefs inconsistent with their behaviors, to change people’s feelings towards mask wearing – if one has to wear a mask, they may eventually decide they like it. 

“Humans are capable of changing and learning new behaviors, if the environment is set up for that,” Haney said. 

Thomas Ratkos, assistant professor of psychology, echoed Haney’s sentiments about the potential to normalize mask wearing. He said that a major problem with masks is their incentive structure; like wearing seatbelts or helmets, the incentives for mask wearing are not immediate. Furthermore, they’re often uncomfortable, which only worsens the effect of the delayed incentive structure. However, Ratkos added that the most important aspect of masks is their social component. 

“What our community says about behavior, any behavior, becomes what we say about behavior, and it ends up controlling a lot of our behavior, how we think about, how we feel about things,” Ratkos said. “Depending on your community, wearing a mask can be seen as very smart or very dumb.” 

According to Ratkos, whether wearing a mask is seen as a sign of strength or of weakness often depends on one’s community. He said that while this can be a source of division, it also means that masks can be recoded to have a different social meaning. Ratkos also emphasized the importance of maintaining empathy and avoiding punitive measures when addressing the pandemic. 

“Our governments really only know punishment to get people to do what they want, rather than providing for people to get their needs met without doing things that might be dangerous,” Ratkos said. “One thing we see with control by coercion, is you get counter-control.” 

Even if not all of society can immediately agree on the issue of face coverings, psychology suggests that there are strategies to reduce confrontations and help normalize the idea of wearing a mask. However, achieving this goal may require both governments and individuals to practice more empathy in dealing with opposing views and to adopt a more uniform messaging strategy to convince the public that masks are necessary and effective. 

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