An experiment published in Evolutionary Psychological Science presented Americans with a series of images of masked and non-masked individuals. Respondents with higher levels of conservatism tended to report feeling more comfortable around the targets who were not wearing a mask, and this was especially true if the target was Asian. The findings suggest that mask-wearing during the pandemic may serve as a signal of group membership that overrides the threat of disease.
Study authors Kaitlyn Boykin and her colleagues were motivated to conduct their study based on the idea that humans have evolved with a behavioral immune system that helps us identify disease threats in our environment. There is some evidence that this system may contribute to an avoidance of racial outgroups since people from outside communities are more likely to carry unfamiliar pathogens.
Since COVID-19 originated from China, Boykin and her colleagues reason that Americans might view Asian facial characteristics as signals of pathogen threat. The study authors wanted to test whether facemasks might serve as a cue that lowers this pathogen threat, such that Asians seen wearing a facemask are viewed as less threatening than those without. As conservatives tend to have higher levels of pathogen threat, the researchers were particularly interested in how individual differences in conservatism might influence perceived vulnerability to disease.
The researchers presented 351 Americans with 16 faces from the Chicago Faces Database. The faces were of men and women who were either White or Asian, and there were two versions of each face — one with a surgical mask and one without. For each target, the participants responded to six different items assessing how comfortable they would feel being around the target in various risky scenarios during a pandemic. Additionally, participants completed a measure of political orientation that asked them to rate their beliefs along a 7-point scale from liberal to conservative.
Overall, respondents tended to report that they would feel more comfortable around the White targets than the Asian targets, suggesting ingroup favoritism that is likely exacerbated by the pandemic.
Interestingly, people with higher levels of conservatism tended to report feeling more comfortable around the targets who were not wearing a mask, compared to those who had masks on. Strangely, this was especially true if the target was Asian. According to the study authors, this finding suggests that mask-wearing was not simply a signal of a person’s interest in preventing the spread of disease. Rather, mask-wearing likely served as an additional signal of group membership, in light of the backlash against mask-wearing displayed by certain conservative groups.
“Conservatives may thus view those not wearing a mask as belonging to their ingroup. Additionally, this inclusion might have served as a buffer for Asian targets, who otherwise would have been viewed as outgroup members,” Boykin and team explain.
“It is possible that conservatives were more positive toward Asian targets without masks due to a shared value of individual rights, in this case the right to make a personal choice regarding wearing a mask,” they later add.
The researchers mention that their study would have benefited from additional items assessing political affiliation, and particularly, conservatism. This would help to pinpoint whether the effect they found was driven by conservatives being comfortable with non-mask wearers or by liberals being averse to non-mask wearers. They also note that their sample was made up of mainly White participants, limiting the generalizability of their findings.
The study, “Noncompliance with Masking as a Coalitional Signal to US Conservatives in a Pandemic”, was authored by Kaitlyn Boykin, Mitch Brown, Alicia L. Macchione, Kelsey M. Drea, and Donald F. Sacco.