Why Do Some People Still Oppose Facemasks?

This post explores three big reasons people continue to oppose mask-wearing.

Posted Aug 03, 2020

When there is a relatively simple solution to helping curb a global pandemic, it can be difficult to understand why the heck aren’t people doing it??

From the success of mask-wearing back during the Spanish Flu in the 1920s to the empirical support for its effectiveness today, we know that mask-wearing can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Why are people still resistant to wearing one?

To begin answering this question, we’ll take an "attitude strength" perspective to explain how people’s anti-mask wearing attitudes persist today.

What Pandemic?

As my co-author on this blog, Dr. Andy Luttrell, eloquently wrote in a previous post: persuasion is personal. In other words, if you want to convince someone to change their mind, you have to provide arguments that resonate with their own, personal belief structure.

For example, if someone was trying to buy a commuter car, you wouldn’t try to give them arguments based on the car’s aesthetic design – you would focus on the car’s gas mileage or ease of parking.

However, with today’s mask-wearing “debate,” most of the arguments in support of them are about the mask's effect on reducing the COVID-19 pandemic. But these kinds of arguments are pretty weak if you don’t believe there’s a pandemic in the first place.

Indeed, how many people do you know who truly believe in the pandemic yet also oppose mask-wearing?

Thus, anti-mask attitudes have continually resisted persuasion, in part, because the arguments for wearing a mask tend to be based on the idea that COVID-19 is a real threat (which mask opposers tend not to perceive).

What Does My Group Believe?

There are different reasons that a person might not believe in the COVID-19 pandemic. But one of the biggest reasons depends on what their in-group believes.

In social psychology, in-group members are those who share a specific social quality (e.g., your political party), and out-group members are those who do not share that social quality.

Although people like to determine their own attitudes and beliefs (rather than rely on the attitudes and beliefs of others), there are two conditions that lead people to rely heavily on their in-group's beliefs for their own attitude. First, there should be some ambiguity about the attitude topic. And second, the attitude topic should have some relevance to the in-group.

With COVID-19, both criteria are met.

First, the threat of COVID-19 is somewhat “abstract” and hard to witness, meaning there is ambiguity for people in how serious a threat it poses.

Second, your stance on COVID-19 “says something” about your broader political beliefs. Treating COVID-19 as a pandemic and thereby closing businesses threatens the economy (a Republican ideal) while ignoring the pandemic and thereby opening businesses threatens people’s health (a Democratic ideal).

Thus, when it comes to mask-wearing, one reason that opposers are so resistant to wearing them is that these people are not really considering the arguments in support of wearing the masks – they’re just going along with what their in-group members are doing.

Of course, mask wearers are doing the same – they’re not really considering the arguments put for by anti-mask wearers and are instead simply following their in-group's beliefs. (Though the mask wearers do have the support of empirically conducted research on their side.)

What Does the Mask Signify?

Building on the two previous points, another reason people are so resistant to masks has nothing to do with the arguments for or against them – it’s what the mask signifies itself.

People imbue everyday objects with psychological meaning and symbolism. For example, before Trump’s 2016 campaign, wearing a red hat meant very little. Nowadays, wearing a red hat immediately carries connotations about one’s political and social ideologies.

Similarly, wearing a mask expresses symbolic alignment with a particular group, typically, a group that the anti-mask wearer doesn’t personally associate with.

For example, if Democrats were told that they needed to wear red hats to protect their scalps from damaging UV rays, they would probably exhibit similar anti-hat wearing behaviors. They would downplay the threat, they would look to their in-group’s behaviors, and they would resist wearing them because of the symbology the hats communicate.

Thus, even when mask-opposers are provided compelling arguments to wear a mask, the idea of expressing symbolic support for a group of people or ideology they disagree with could be enough psychological motivation to find a way to justify not wearing one.

In closing, if you want to try to persuade someone to wear a mask, here are three quick tips:

(1.) Try to present concrete and/or visual evidence that COVID-19 is a legitimate threat

(2.) Try to associate mask-wearing with another ideology they believe in (here’s a previous post where I discuss such a strategy)

(3.) Try to model mask-wearing behavior yourself – helping people perceive mask-wearing as a collective behavior (rather than being tied to an ideology) will help to normalize it and encourage the practice

References

Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(5), 808.

Swire, B., Berinsky, A. J., Lewandowsky, S., & Ecker, U. K. (2017). Processing political misinformation: comprehending the Trump phenomenon. Royal Society open science, 4(3), 160802.