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Around the world, the percentage of people wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has varied enormously. They can easily be divided into three categories – the true maskers, those who believe and understand the purpose behind using a mask, the in-betweeners, who decide to wear a mask dependent on their situation and surroundings and the anti-maskers, who believe that wearing a mask infringes on their freedom, and do not like to be told what to do. 

Face masks have been the ubiquitous symbol of a pandemic that has sickened millions of people and killed more than 4 million. In hospitals and other healthcare facilities, the use of medical-grade masks like the MEO Med face masks has cut down the transmission of virus drastically. Usage of masks in public has resulted in a drop in infections rates. Studies have suggested that masks could save lives by cutting down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, as well as reducing the severity of infection if people do contract the disease. 

And yet, there are people who still question the effectiveness and purpose of a mask? What explains this ambiguous behaviour? And how can we convey the seriousness of wearing a mask to a non-masker? 

The answer goes beyond biology, epidemiology and physics. Human behaviour is core to how and why we choose (or not) to wear a mask in the real world.

A new study co-authored by an MIT faculty member finds that a public sense of “collectivism” is a key driver of increased mask use. Collectivism broadly refers to the tendency to prioritize a group’s needs over an individual’s concerns. 

Hence, you may have observed that during the pandemic, governments appealed to their citizens’ collective sense of responsibility – to take care of their young or elders, to either wear a mask or get vaccinated, for example, the New Zealand government’s call to action to its “team of 5 million”.

Appealing to people’s sense of group responsibility may help them stand together in a crisis and support each other by wearing a mask.

Another study by authors Steven Taylor and Gordon J. G. Asmundson suggests that the refusal to wear masks during the pandemic may be partially motivated by a phenomenon called psychological reactance. 

Psychological reactance (PR) is the unpleasant arousal that a person experiences when they are asked to follow orders that they believe to infringe on their personal choices. People high in PR tend to react to attempts at persuasion with hostility and counter-arguments, believing that they are defending their freedom. 

The researchers say that instead, strategies that directly address this issue may be more effective. For example, messaging that highlights freedom of choice when asking people to wear masks (e.g., “You have a right to wear a mask to stay safe. Don’t let anyone take away your right.”).

And for the in-betweeners, it may be time to get tactical! Since they are already trying to do the right thing, and have an awareness of when to wear a mask as a result of either guilt, collectivistic inspiration or fear of judgment, giving them a sense of responsibility in this environment of uncertainty, maybe just what the doctor ordered!