A Psychology About Protective Mask Compliance

The Journey Inward


Last updated 12/2/2020 at 5:12pm

Speaking in the Senate chamber, Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, admonished the presiding member, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, of Alaska, to wear a mask in order to protect stenographers and staff members from the COVID-19 virus.

Sen. Sullivan retorted that he does not wear a mask while speaking, and, “I don’t need instructions from you.”

The exchange between Sen. Brown and Sen. Sullivan is instructive. Sen. Sullivan represents those in the political arena who defy mandates about wearing masks. The recurrent message is: “You can’t tell me what to do. As an American, I value my individual freedom and don’t want to be told what to do.”

The request to wear a mask is seen as constitutional overreach.

When our leaders convey resistance to face coverings the general populace will often follow their lead. For example, we saw protestors threatening Gov. Whitmire, of Michigan, a Democrat, because she enacted a mask mandate. In Orange County, Calif., pro-maskers put their safety on the line to urge the local government to reinstate the mask ordinance. Anti-mask protestors showed up to block them.

Shane G. Owens, a psychologist and assistant director of campus mental health at Farmington State College (SUNY), suggested that inconsistent messages from scientists in the beginning of the pandemic is a factor in creating doubt about the efficacy of masks and implied that given the widespread distrust of government people would have taken the recommendations more seriously if they’d been issued by Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz.

Protective measures undoubtedly have become politicized, especially around the issue of compliance. So, does psychology shed any light on why this is a controversial issue?

It is generally accepted that our decisions are not clear-cut and are influenced by our psychological history. Consequently, defiance may suggest early developmental challenges. For example, in psychology circles it is well known that mother and child must negotiate and create a balance between closeness and distance. This is called the separation-individuation stage of development.

If this stage is resolved successfully, a person can be close to others without fear of being dominated by them and is also able to be an independent person with his own center of initiative. Closeness and independence are not mutually exclusive.

In contrast, if a child senses that his self-development is curtailed by parental pressure, he either submits in order to stay on good terms or resists this imposition and defies. If overly restricted, compliance implies loss of freedom.

And if people grew up in legislative families, that is, families with strict guidelines about proper behavior, a disposition to defy is often created. Parental (government) guidelines are resented.

Admittedly, this is psychological “speak,” and simplified. One psychological size cannot fit all. But this view is, nonetheless, relevant as we try to understand why so many people resist mask wearing. Simply put, there is a direct correlation between childhood influences and our approach to wearing masks.

Christine B. L. Abrams, an M.D. writing in Psychology Today, gives another reason why people push away masks. She notes that we are in a pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus, which carries a high degree of lethality and many people have died already, but that many young people have not had experiences with death.

She writes: “Younger adults have not experienced firsthand the major communicable diseases in childhood as did people prior to the 1970s, when every child became sick with measles, chickenpox, mumps and German measles.” Vaccinations have prevented the contagion of these diseases. “This same group of young adults does not have experience with the military draft and with friends and family dying in World War II, Korea or Vietnam…These fewer experiences remove them from fearing illness and death.” Thus, this group is less likely to take precautions and wear masks.

David B. Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the School of Global Public Health at New York University, said in the Huffington Post that the stridency of opinions and extreme polarization over masks can be chalked up to one thing: “Because this virus and pandemic feels so unfamiliar, we’re clinging hard to whatever makes us feel safe in the moment.”

Due to our survival instinct under the threat of an unknown enemy like the virus, our brains move into the “fight, flight or freeze mode.” For some the “fight” aspect is directed at government mask ordinances and people who chide them for not wearing masks. Recall the exchange between Sen. Brown and Sen. Sullivan.

Even as we go to the grocery store or other places in public, we face uncertainty. When I leave my house for, say, the pharmacy or doctor’s office, I wonder if proper precautions have been maintained and will I encounter someone who is asymptomatic who either isn’t wearing a mask or is not observing social distance.

My way of handling uncertainty is to wear a mask, wash my hands regularly with sanitizer, and honor social distance. I am by nature friendly and when I talk to someone, I may forget caution. Then, later, I wonder if I jeopardized them or myself. I do not like this level of restriction. This situation seems like an infringement on my personal freedom.

But I am aware enough of my psychological makeup; I felt restricted in my childhood by overbearing parents. So, I do not want to rebel against mandates to show my parents up. As I mentioned earlier, if I am not aware of my childhood influence, I am likely to respond to mask wearing from issues that occurred when I was 5 or 6 years old. That’s not helpful.

Some feel as if wearing a mask is an assault on their masculinity. Boys are taught to be bold, brave, courageous. When we were not, we were embarrassed; peers could taunt us mercilessly. “Don’t be a crybaby.” When we see someone without a mask, and we are wearing one we may feel a wave of shame – not masculine enough. And others do not wear a mask because they have been taught to think that is less masculine.

There are many reasons why people either wear a mask or refuse to wear one – political beliefs, ideology, social factors, personal health, a work situation or education.

In this column I have wanted to show that there are also psychological reasons that are often overlooked and may be an important motivation about mask compliance. We have another chance to take the journey inward and discover more about ourselves by the simple act of either putting on a mask or declining to do so.

(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)


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