The Big Mask Face-Off: What Does the COVID Mask Mean to You?

Realistic Conflict Theory can help us better understand the COVID-19 mask fight.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

Curiously, wearing masks while out in public to better protect us all from COVID-19 seems to have become a major political issue and statement in recent weeks. Mask-wearing (or not wearing) means a lot more than just wearing or not wearing a mask. Mask wearers now appear to be associated with Democrats while refusing to wear masks in public seem to be associated with Republicans. Masks now are also a statement about one’s feelings about President Donald Trump, too.

People who like and support President Trump are more likely to refuse to wear masks while those who do not like or support him are more likely to wear them. State governors who are Democrats are more likely to mandate mask-wearing while Republican governors are more likely not to do so. There have been many violent altercations caught on tape with non-mask wearers expressing their outrage about being requested to wear masks in various stores, restaurants, and other public locations.

From a human behavior point of view, the mask controversy is quite remarkable to witness. This tension is perhaps best explained by Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT) made famous by the Robber’s Cave experiments conducted by the social psychologist, Muzafer Sherif. In a nutshell, the theory helps us to better understand and informs us how arbitrary differences between groups (mask wearers vs non-mask wearers) can represent an "in- vs out-group" conflict that is especially salient when there is competition between groups for desired and perceived limited resources. As American economic and other disparities significantly increase with associated stress there is inevitable competition for limited resources that plays into the "us vs. them," red state vs. blue state, white vs. non-white, native vs. immigrant, pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump dynamics. It encourages stereotyping, prejudice, and under extreme conditions, violence.

The evidence-based public health science currently indicates that wearing masks can help avoid the spread of COVID-19. We actually knew this was true during the 1918 Spanish Flu more than 100 years ago. Additionally, wearing a mask in public is not a heavy lift. It is easy to do and masks are inexpensive and often free. You can use an old sock or t-shirt, for example, to create a perfectly adequate mask. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the benefits or liabilities of wearing masks, if you have a choice between severe illness and death versus discomfort wearing a paper or cloth mask while shopping most reasonable people would likely error on the side of caution maintaining a "better safe than sorry" and "just in case" perspective. After all, politics and identity are important but are they worth dying for? 

Yet, when masks got associated and entangled with politics then it became such a polarizing statement that masks no longer are associated with a reasonable public health precaution. Masks became a statement about politics and identity—which team you are on. Perhaps other recent examples include the hand gesture that means OK being used to signify white supremacy or wearing Hawaiian shirts may now mean that you are associated with the Boogaloo Boys (a white supremacy group). In some communities, wearing certain colors might mean you are in a certain gang. Seemingly minor differences in symbols can become really big differences in identity given what these symbols come to represent and how they play into competition for resources according to Realistic Conflict Theory.

These political dynamics and associations then become a dangerous distraction. When facing a deadly pandemic that has spread across the globe, one certainly wants to do everything possible to avoid catching the illness and dying from it.  This is common sense. Everything else is really secondary. It may be helpful to remind ourselves that focusing and acting on evidence-based public health guidelines from reliable and nonpartisan scientific and medically sound sources can be the difference between life and death, regardless of one’s political views, identity, or persuasions. Being mindful of Realistic Conflict Theory may be helpful to us all in making more thoughtful decisions about our health and wellness, to wear a mask or not, during the increasingly deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you think?

Copyright 2010, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP