Written by Dr. Moe Gelbart, Executive Director of the
Thelma McMillen Recovery Center
Our scientific community has been clear and consistent on the several things
we can do to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic: practice social distancing,
handwashing, and wearing a mask or face covering. The wearing of masks
seems to have become a battleground for some, and I wanted to address
some of the psychological reasons for not wearing a mask when the safety
and prevention issue is so clearly indicated. For the most part, this
blog will address the psychological, not political reasons of mask wearing,
though sometimes these two invariably intersect.
So, what are the reasons people choose to not wear a mask? We have to first
understand all behavior is motivated not only by facts, but by the meaning
we give to facts/events, and the self-narrative we create. That is essential
to know, because it is what allows us to behave differently, when the
narrative changes. Underlying reasons for making this choice include:
Denial: Many people are tired and fatigued with the COVID-19 impact, and strongly
desire to believe it is better, over, not dangerous. Wearing a mask interferes
with that belief system and keeps them worried and anxious. Not wearing
a mask allows them to validate to themselves we are in the clear.
Sense of Invulnerability: Many people, especially younger individuals, believe nothing bad will
happen to them, and even if they contract the virus, they will not have
any significant problems. Neurologically, people age 13-25 have brains
which are still developing, and are prone to risk taking behavior.
Behavioral drift when it comes to preventive measures. It is difficult for some to maintain behaviors when it is for prevention,
as opposed to when it is for treatment or cure. As an example, if someone
hurts their back, and is prescribed stretching exercises to get better,
they will usually comply with those exercises. However, when they are
recommended to keep up the exercises on a regular basis, to avoid future
problems, they are less likely to maintain that regimen. There is clearly
behavioral drift when the situation is not acute.
Issues Related to Authority: Some people have a built-in opposition to authority and rebel against
anyone telling them what to do. They feel being told to wear a mask violates
their basic rights. Some have a mistrust of science and believe they are
being manipulated for some gain other than what seems apparent. On the
other hand, some people find a connection to power and authority, and
vicariously gain a sense of meaning and importance when they identify
with a powerful figure. This is certainly going on in our society today,
and for some, the mask/no mask choice is the uniform of the “tribe”
they identify with.
Meaning of Covering One’s Face: Face coverings are generally associated with the “bad guy”
in our culture – the bank robber or criminal with a face mask, the
villain in Western lore. There is a sense of something to hide or something
to be ashamed of. Unconsciously, some may feel they are associating themselves
with that by wearing a mask. Facial expressions are greatly relied upon
to understand and read others through their facial expressions. Wearing
masks takes away those non-verbal cues which can be important.
Admission of Fear and Vulnerability: This is related to the issue of denial. Wearing a mask, for some, validates
the sense of fear, anxiety and vulnerability to this serious problem in
our midst. Some feel wearing a mask demonstrates to the world they are
afraid, and conversely, by going mask free, they are strong and fearless.
Selfish and Self-Centered. We are told wearing a mask is for the protection of others, not for ourselves.
Some people do not find that as enough motivation. They may feel they
are in a low risk population, due to their age, their good health, etc.,
and protection for their friends, neighbors, and parents or grandparents
is not enough reason for them to do something they do not want to do.
As previously stated, all behavior is related to a risk/reward formula,
based on our perceptions and the narratives we tell ourselves. Sometimes,
we are limited by our understanding of our motives, and anything which
brings new light and new information to us helps us clarify our choices
and better understand our reasoning for doing things. I’d like to
share a parable which I find inspiring:
Once upon a time there was an old man who used to walk on the beach every
morning. One morning, after a particularly bad storm, he found the beach
littered with starfish as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance,
he noticed a little boy, stopping every so often to pick up an object,
and throw it into the sea. As the boy came closer, the man asked “what
are you doing?” The boy replied “throwing starfish into the
ocean. The tide has washed them up on the beach, they can’t return
to the sea by themselves, and when the sun gets high, they will die unless
I throw them back into the water”. The man said “there are
tens of thousands of starfish….I’m afraid you won’t
really make much of a difference”. The boy bent down, picked up
another starfish and threw it into the ocean. He smiled, and said “it
made a difference to that one.”
We are all in this together. I hope that some of this information will
assist you in thinking about the choices you make, and help make choices
that are best for yourself, and for all of us.