Should I wear a mask today?
It’s a question we struggle with daily. And, sadly, once we decide, we’re quick to judge those who choose otherwise. I’m not immune to that (judging, that is), though I try my best to understand the psychology and drivers behind each of our choices.
I’m a mask-wearer – that’s something you should know. I’m also a rule-follower (by and large) and, I’d like to think, a person who routinely looks out for others. Having said that, and having made a choice to don a mask when out in public, I’m fascinated by those who choose not to (particularly in light of recent trend lines here in Charleston). It’s a bit of a wonder to me and I’m trying to sort through the reasons.
Several come to mind.
No. 1 – Comfort: I get that. If I put my mask on correctly (over my nose, that is), it seems a bit confining, it creates an unfamiliar sensation. So comfort, both physically and psychologically, is clearly a factor.
No. 2 – Culture: During the SARS epidemic, I recall seeing pictures of citizens in China, each one wearing a mask. It was a strange and unfamiliar sight. In America, conformity is simply not built into our culture. Health experts might indeed have science on their side, but to limit the spread of COVID-19, they clearly have to work harder to understand the cultural hurdles that exist.
No. 3 – Touchstones: If you don’t know anyone who has contracted COVID-19 or, worse yet, know someone who has died from the disease, it’s probably hard to think this thing’s for real. Sure, we hear reports of rising cases and a scarcity of hospital beds, but if it’s not close to home, it’s hard to embrace.
No. 4 – Weakness: This one’s easy to understand. None of us, particularly men, like to appear weak or vulnerable. And, for some reason, wearing a mask has come to be associated with weakness. It’s as if we’re saying: I can’t protect myself without one. I get that.
No. 5 – Fitting In: When I’m wearing a mask in public, and no one else is doing the same, I do feel out of place. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. This calls to mind what psychologists call “social proof,” that is, human beings often look to mirror the actions of others, particularly in times of uncertainty. The term “social proof’ was coined by
Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of “Influence” (social proof is one of Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, along with reciprocity, commitment/consistency, authority, liking and scarcity), and, he explains: “As a rule, we make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it.”
No. 6 – Fear/Denial: I can’t speak for others, but as soon as I put on my mask I realize I’m admitting, to myself and perhaps others, that danger exists. From all the reports of the seemingly random ways that COVID-19 attacks humans (some without incidence, others a death sentence), it is a bit confronting.
No. 7 – Freedom: We’ve all seen those social media clips where an individual, when asked to wear a mask in a supermarket, declares: “It’s a free country.” Who could disagree? Americans are blessed with more freedom of expression than most others on the planet, but it’s clear we can’t always do as we wish. Take smoking. Three decades ago the airlines banned smoking, and years later restaurants and bars followed suit. And how about those signs posted at beach resort restaurants that declare: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” As a society, we set limits, in hopes of keeping our citizens safe.
As a mask-wearer, I of course wish more people would wear them (it certainly would make me feel more at ease). But, far beyond that, it would bring us closer to the principle that guided America during World War II, to simply “do our part.” In an recent interview Tom Hanks harkened back to the 1940s in America, when the nation rose as one against a common enemy.
The enemy is faceless this time around, but the importance of, and strength of, unity is no less critical.