Why Don't People Wear Masks During COVID-19?
A psychiatrist shares five explanations that lead to such choices.
Posted Jul 18, 2020
We are in a pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. It carries high lethality and already many people have died. Medical doctors and scientists have found the primary way the virus is passed along is through the air, by speaking, coughing, sneezing, singing, and laughing. Any barrier over the mouth cuts down on contagion and prevents the virus from infecting others. Masks are ideal for this. Yet some people refuse to wear them.
Recently, a friend asked me what the psychology is behind people who do not wear face coverings. I pondered this and report on five psychological explanations in the minds and behaviors of people that lead to such decisions.
Some people just don’t care about other people and what happens to them, whether others get ill with COVID-19 or not. Dr. Martin and I call these impotent personalities. We discuss them in Living on Automatic. Their only concern is with themselves, but not in a beneficial way. They do not look after their own health well. Instead, they pay extraordinary attention to their wants and desires in an impulsive way.
Impotent personalities act helpless in demonstrating caring consideration for others. They behave and think impotently, as if they are inert. Thus, they have no desire to wear a mask to protect themselves or others from infection. It is bothersome and too much trouble.
Other people seem to follow an illogical approach that engages in magical thinking. With this type of thinking people believe that things happening in life take place by conjuring and desire. There is an allure to thinking magically, irrespective of the reality of a circumstance. Their thinking: I’ve been in self-quarantine for four months. I am tired of this. I want my life back to normal. I’ll just go back to living my life as I did before COVID-19 came along; no need to take precautions or wear a mask. I’m done with COVID-19.
Lack of Medical Knowledge
Another group of people lack scientific and medical understanding of COVID-19 transmission. Their thinking: If I can’t see it, it must not be there. Most people I see are just fine. They have no appreciation of contagion or of comprehending how viruses spread. Thus, they see no reason to wear a mask. This group is naïve and uneducated about a basic medical grasp of contagion.
Inexperience with Illness and Death
Some people not wearing masks are young adults in their twenties and thirties. In the United States, these younger adults have by-and-large grown up with vaccinations for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and human papilloma virus (HPV). All of these vaccinations, except polio, began in the 1970s and 1980s. Younger adults have not experienced firsthand the major communicable diseases in childhood as did people prior to the 1970s, when almost every child became sick with measles, chickenpox, mumps, and German measles. The only exception was the AIDS epidemic, starting in the 1980s, which mostly preceded their births.
This same group of young adults does not have experience with the military draft and with friends and family dying in World War II, Korea or Vietnam. They also did not experience the threat of annihilation from the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s with bomb drills in schools.
Thus, not only do young adults feel invulnerable and invincible due to their young age, but they also have less experience with severe communicable diseases in childhood. And, in general they have less experience with illness and death than older adults. These fewer experiences remove them from fearing illness and death. They are more likely to be non-believers that COVID-19 will infect and kill them. Because of this lack of experience they see no reason to take precautions and wear masks.
Politics and History
Americans in the US are particularly individualistic. It is our heritage to self-determine the path of our lives. We do not like people telling us what to do. This is instilled in our collective psyche because of our history and the founding of our country and our form of government.
Some people do not want to wear masks because they believe it infringes their personal right to self-determination. They fail to evaluate whether mask wearing is logical or illogical under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. They assert individuality at all times, even over scientific knowledge of viral transmission. Then, after the fact, they tie their stance in with their political affiliation to justify their decision.