Why Men Refuse to Wear Face Masks

Evolutionary gender specialization may underlie men's dislike of masks.

Posted May 27, 2020

Compliance in wearing medically recommended face masks is low but men are three times as likely as women to admit that they do not comply. This fits with a broader pattern of better health behavior by women that squares with evolved gender differences.

Gender Differences in Health Behavior

Wearing a mask can be considered self-protective health behavior but it probably does more to protect the public than the wearer. This means that wearers are swayed by public spirit at least as much as by self-protection. Users are motivated by a desire to protect the public in addition to protecting themselves.

While the social motive is not clearly different for men and women, females are more likely to take steps to protect their health. This means that they visit doctors more often, get recommended shots, go for more cancer screenings, and so forth. This is despite the fact that men generally have much worse health outcomes with higher mortality from most of the leading causes of death, and live about five fewer years in most countries.

Men are generally more willing than women to take deliberate risks resulting in higher death rates from accidents and violence(1). Researchers found that men are more willing to assume the health risk of going into public places without a mask.

Interestingly, men believe themselves to be at less risk from Covid-19 than women do. This is ironic because men actually have significantly higher death rates from infection than women do.

In countries where mask-wearing is legally required, males have the same high levels of compliance as females do. This means that if public health professionals want to ensure that people wear masks in the public interest, simply telling them that it is a good idea does not change masculine behavior much and also fails to sway the majority of women.

Why Men Refuse to Wear Masks

If they have the choice, only about 29 percent of men choose to wear masks compared to 45 percent of women who say they “always” wear masks outside the home.

Men were more likely to say masks make them feel not cool. Mask-wearing represents a stigma for men. It also feels physically uncomfortable.

Wearing a mask expresses vulnerability. As a sign of risk aversion, it is perceived as unmanly. Differing risk profiles between men and women are consistent with an ancient pattern in the division of labor between hunting and gathering. Even so, young women have become less risk averse under modern conditions, as represented in increased problem driving of teenage women that now equals that of teenage men.

Evolutionary Reasons for Differing Risk Profiles

Although the varying risk profiles of men and women reflect their ancestral division of labor, that is not the complete picture. Men who were willing to take unnecessary risks impressed their peers and acquired higher social status. This, in turn, made them more attractive to women. This phenomenon remains a convincing explanation for the higher incidence of all kinds of risk-taking and violence in young men compared to other demographic groups.

In hunter-gatherer societies, men foraged at a greater distance from the home base where they attempted to take down large game animals. This occupation favored fearlessness and risk-taking. Foraging closer to home, women targeted smaller prey, or vegetable food, so that risk-taking had little payoff in food acquisition. As the primary caregivers of children, women avoided unnecessary risks because their injury or death had dire consequences for the well-being and survival of their offspring.

In the modern world, women devote less time to caring for children and their risk profile has increased. This suggests that women of the future are likely to take riskier jobs. Currently, the greater masculine willingness to do risky work is a major factor in occupational choices. At present, dangerous occupations are overwhelmingly performed by men for several reasons. Boys grow up accepting that it is manly to be unafraid of dangerous situations. So they are less fearful of physical risks. Moreover, men can impress their peers by taking unnecessary risks.

Precautionary Behavior as the Converse of Risk-Taking

Precautionary behavior like wearing a mask is the opposite of risk-taking and that is why it is seen as uncool. Yet men can easily be persuaded to change and wear masks if legally required to do so.

The logic is that they are not wearing masks because of fearfulness but because it is the law.

So there is a compelling logic for making face masks compulsory in public just as it was necessary to encourage us to wear seat belts.

References

1 Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Behavioral factors associated with disease, injury, and death, among men: Evidence and implications for prevention. Journal of Men’s Studies, 9, 81-142.