Why Some Americans Resist Masks

Concepts from persuasion research explain resistance to masking up.

Posted Jul 15, 2020

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
Source: Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in the United States, some Americans continue to be resistant to the idea of wearing a mask in public. Although some may disregard non-mask wearers as misinformed or deliberately obtuse, the reasoning behind this resistance has been known to communication scholars and psychologists since the 1960s.

Recently, I picked up pizza at a local pizza and ice cream place. The pizza carry-out was contactless with disposable glove provided. However, when I pulled up to the store, around 20 people from different groupings were milling about for ice cream takeout without a mask to be seen. As a scholar of communication, who studies and teaches persuasion and social influence, I know that while the issue can seem straightforward — it is not hard to wear a mask and personal masks are becoming readily available — people’s reactions and resistance are grounded in concepts we’ve known for decades, particularly the idea of reactance.

As public health messages go, a campaign for mask-wearing should have all the elements associated with success. There is credibility from expert sources such as The Lancet, regarding the reduction of coronavirus transmission, scientists say wearing masks is a key aspect of helping slow the spread of coronavirus. Support has emerged from public figures ranging from Barack Obama to Dick Cheney. COVID-19 is a clear and present threat. Finally, mask-wearing, or at least face-covering, should also have a relatively high level of efficacy, meaning the behavior is a relatively simple thing for people to do. The average person might not be able to fully grasp complex epidemiological models, but almost everyone can at least tie a bandana over their face. 

Yet, mixed messages from national leaders, most prominently President Trump, persist. And while the importance of mask-wearing is agreed upon by much of the country, the pockets of resistance to this simple public health measure that endure continue to postpone America’s recovery.

While I am not a medical doctor, I am a researcher investigating online information diffusion as well as persuasion. The acceptance or resistance to mask-wearing is not just an issue for the life sciences; it is primarily a communication process, involving aspects of persuasion, cognitive appraisal, of messages, and the influence of interpersonal relationships. Two primary phenomena that are likely driving attitudes toward mask-wearing are polarization and reactance.

With colleagues, I have explained how information and messages become increasingly polarized on social media. A central tenet of our theory is that it is the interaction between people who hold opposing worldviews that can drive greater polarization. Thus, we were concerned at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis that unless divergent American leaders stood up to unequivocally support public health recommendations and measures, the very health messages that could keep Americans safer, it would likely lead to greater fracturing, possibly along political lines. As the COVID-19 crisis continues through the summer of 2020, it is becoming increasingly clear that the fault lines regarding mask-wearing are expanding at the very moment Americans need consistency in our public health behaviors.

Polarization around mask-wearing is also intertwined with a phenomenon called reactance. Reactance is a motivational state which is activated when people perceive a threat to their freedom of choice. Often people experiencing reactance feel angry and engage in counter-arguing the original public health message. Feelings of reactance then drive individuals to behaviors they feel restore these freedoms. In this case, reactance might look like a refusal to wear a mask, belittling others who do wear masks, or seeking out reasons, no matter how flimsy, against wearing masks.

Messages that appeal to the restoration rather than the restriction of freedom may have a greater positive impact on public health behaviors. Indeed, despite earlier missteps, the Surgeon General’s current take is a nice example of this type of appeal. Dr. Adams' recent public comment is that “[mask-wearing] adds to your convenience and your freedom because it allows us to open up more places… this mask, this face covering, actually is an instrument of freedom for all Americans if we all use it.”

However, traditional gatekeepers have less control over public health narratives these days, rather what people do and say on social media can have a larger impact on others’ beliefs about public health behaviors. Thus, we all have a responsibility to understand how the messages we share influence others.

Clear and direct arguments often work, but when messages become too controlling they can cause reactance responses. Narrative messages, or stories, can also help quell reactance responses. Providing examples or pictures of your own mask-wearing can provide social proof of mask-wearing, these interpersonal communication-based strategies may have a greater impact than the words of experts. 

Ideally, the messaging around new mask requirements will focus on the restoration of freedoms and increasing perceptions of social proof regarding mask-wearing. Individuals can help by sharing their own mask-wearing behaviors and stories. Americans have the ability to work together to help reduce COVID transmission, but we won’t regain our ability to interact freely without the disciplined adoption of public health measures.


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