A psychologist’s guide to changing the minds of anti-maskers

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While the world is eagerly waiting for COVID-19 vaccines to bring an end to the pandemic, wearing a mask to help prevent viral transmission has become more or less mandatory globally. Though many people embrace mask wearing and adhere to public health advice, some rebel and argue that wearing a mask has been imposed upon them against their will.

With mask wearing and social distancing, it’s down to the individual to decide whether or not to comply, yet what influences compliance isn’t straightforward. Demographic factors such as income level, political affiliation, and gender have all been associated with whether people choose to wear a mask and socially distance.

However, psychology can go some way to explaining why behavioral differences occur. Past research has shown that psychological factors such as an individual’s perception of risk and tendency towards risky behavior influence adherence to health behaviors. This is now being seen in the current pandemic.

One preprint study (yet to be peer-reviewed) has shown that a greater propensity for risky decision-making goes hand in hand with being less likely to appropriately wear a mask or maintain social distancing. In another piece of research, perceptions of the risk of COVID-19 are cited as a driver of whether people decide to socially distance.

And there may also be a further psychological explanation: the phenomenon of “psychological reactance”. This is where people vehemently believe they have the freedom to behave how they wish and experience negative emotions when this freedom is threatened, and so become motivated to reinstate it.