A new study published in PLOS One sheds light on the core beliefs that characterize people who refuse to wear face masks during the pandemic. The findings suggest that anti-maskers endorse a core belief that masks are ineffective against the virus, coupled with a psychological reactance to mask wearing that likely strengthens their anti-mask attitudes.
Behavioral scientists invest themselves in understanding the underlying thought processes that characterize people’s behavior. In the context of a global pandemic, understanding why certain people refuse to wear face masks is crucial for protecting public health.
Study authors Steven Taylor and Gordon J. G. Asmundson suggest 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.
Taylor and Asmundson conducted a study to explore the core attitudes associated with non-adherence to wearing face masks. They proposed that anti-mask sentiment forms a network of related attitudes that influence each other in different ways. To explore this web of attitudes, they used network analyses — a method of analyzing data that looks for patterns of relationships between interrelated variables or “nodes”.
The researchers collected survey data from a sample of over 2,000 Americans and Canadians with an average age of 54. The survey asked participants a range of questions designed to assess negative attitudes toward face masks. The surveys also asked respondents whether or not they wear a face mask because of COVID-19.
First, the vast majority (84%) of respondents said that they did wear a face mask, while only 16% did not. Unsurprisingly, those who said they did not wear a mask endorsed more negative attitudes toward masks.
A series of analyses were then used to determine the relative importance of each variable or node within this network of attitudes. The researchers found that certain negative attitudes were strongly clustered — the belief that masks are ineffective, the belief that wearing a mask is a tough habit to acquire, the belief that masks make you look untrustworthy, the beliefs that masks look ugly or silly, and the beliefs that masks cause overheating or difficulty breathing. All of these negative attitudes — with the exception of beliefs about overheating and difficulty breathing — were significantly more endorsed by people who did not wear face masks.
Moreover, at the center of the network of attitudes was an aversion to wearing face masks, assessed with the item, “I do not like feeling forced to wear a facemask.” This attitude, which the researchers refer to as mask-related psychological reactance, was the node that scored highest in “closeness” and “betweenness” — two measures that denote how important a node is in connecting other nodes to each other. The belief that masks are ineffective scored the highest in “strength” — meaning that it made the most direct connections to other nodes.
When it comes to addressing these attitudes among anti-maskers, Taylor and Asmundson say that the belief that masks are ineffective can be easily addressed through education. However, a deep-rooted aversion to masks (mask-related PR) makes the situation more tricky.
“If one tries to persuade a person with high PR that masks are effective,” the authors explain, “this will elicit reactance in which that person generates further arguments against the effectiveness of masks. The same applies to other reasons for mask refusal (e.g., the belief that masks make people look suspicious). Attempts to counter the majority of reasons for mask refusal will also elicit reactance because mask-related PR lies at the heart of the network of anti-mask attitudes.”
The researchers say that instead, strategies that directly address PR may be more effective, for example, messaging that highlights freedom of choice when asking people to wear masks or plays on reactance (e.g., “You have a right to wear a mask to stay safe. Don’t let anyone take away your right.”).
The study, “Negative attitudes about facemasks during the COVID-19 pandemic: The dual importance of perceived ineffectiveness and psychological reactance”, was authored by Steven Taylor, and Gordon J. G. Asmundson.