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Why Face Masks Give Us the Creeps

Do over-the-top reactions to wearing face masks defy rational explanation?

Shutterstock Used With Permission
Source: Shutterstock Used With Permission

Wearing or not wearing a face mask has morphed into a surprisingly provocative act, and it is now one of the chief symbolic flashpoints in the culture wars.

People who wear face masks berate and attack others who do not wear face masks, and those who do not wear face masks attack and berate individuals who do wear them. The mere request that someone don a mask before entering a store has led to physical assaults and even murder, and in one especially vile incident, a customer wiped his nose on the shirt of a Dollar Tree employee just because she asked him to wear a face mask.

What is going on here? Why such visceral pushback to a simple thing like wearing a face mask?

Yes, face masks can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, and they totally interfere with many of the most pleasurable activities in our social lives: eating, drinking, smiling, flirting, and kissing.

But such over-the-top emotional responses to mask-wearing defy rational explanation, given that we do not get nearly as riled up over other things that more accurately signal political allegiances.

Clearly, the face mask is igniting something much deeper within us.

The Nature of Creepiness

I believe that this controversy has stumbled into that part of our psyche that gives us the creeps during times of uncertainty. My own research on the nature of creepiness indicates that getting creeped out is an adaptive emotional response to the uncertainty of danger. It is different from related emotions such as fear or disgust, which kick in when the threats we face and how best to deal with them are quite clear.

The ambiguity of threat leaves us frozen in place and mired in unease. We do not know whether fight, flight, or nothing at all is required. Our “creep detectors” activate in situations like this to maintain a state of hyper-vigilance to help us figure out what, if anything, is going on. Being creeped out can be mentally exhausting because it commandeers a lot of our available cognitive processing capacity.

We can be creeped out by people and by places, and the COVID-19 pandemic makes us uneasy about both. We wonder if we have been exposed to the virus, or even if we already have it. We are unsure about our friends and relatives, and strangers pose an even higher level of risk. We do not know which places are safe and which ones are not; the invisibility of the threat is maddening.

In many ways, pandemics promote the same sort of ambivalent threat that zombie movies capitalize on. It is a terror that spreads from person to person, and someone who was not dangerous yesterday may become lethal tomorrow. It is usually unclear where it came from or how long it will last, but the best way to survive is to avoid other humans.

Psychological Mechanisms at Work

When we are uncertain about what is going on around us, one of the first things we do is to look at the reactions of other people. If they seem unconcerned, we convince ourselves that there is nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, they are looking at us, and our mutually calm demeanors reassure each other that all is well. This phenomenon is known as “pluralistic ignorance,” and it is one of the impediments that prevent bystanders from being helpful in emergency situations. If we choose not to wear a mask and frequent places where very few other people are wearing them, it is easy to relax and believe that we are safe.

On the other hand, if we believe that we are at low risk for infection, being surrounded by others who are wearing masks directly challenges this belief, creating a tension that may take an aggressive turn. Conversely, if we are worried about infection and dutifully wear a mask whenever we are in public, seeing others without masks makes us feel conspicuous and a bit silly, which also promotes negative feelings.

Self-perception theory explains how our attitudes often get formed by making inferences from our own behavior; putting on a mask can prime feelings of fear – if I am putting on a mask, there must really be something to be afraid of; otherwise, I would not be doing it.

Masks also impair our ability to manage face-to-face interactions. The nuances of facial expression that we rely upon so heavily become less reliable, and social distancing and prohibitions on touching and handshaking further alienate us from the normal rhythm of daily social life. This creates an awkwardness and a sense of being “on guard” that we rarely feel, creating discomfort akin to what we might experience in the presence of a mischievous clown whose motives and emotions are not easy to read.

Source: Shutterstock

All of these effects get magnified when the mask is also a symbol of which side you might be on in the culture wars. The mask becomes a quick and easy way to identify “us” versus “them,” with all of the undesirable consequences that follow from that.

We need to overcome our darker predispositions and get along during this time of stress. Ideally, wearing a mask will eventually come to be seen as a normal individual choice rather than as a political statement. We do not attack dental hygienists or nurses for wearing face masks; it is time to afford the same courtesy to our neighbors. Similarly, we need to recognize that when we are asked to wear masks ourselves in public spaces, the request is a well-intentioned attempt to protect everyone's health; it is not meant as an attack on our "freedom" or on our political views.

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