The Hidden Meanings of Wearing a Mask

May 8, 2020
Man putting on a facemask


What does wearing -- or not wearing -- a mask mean these days?

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman posits that people’s emotions are heightened when the familiar disappears and they don’t know what the future holds. Fear comes with an impulse to fight, run away, or freeze with paralysis. Emotions that are swiftly aroused override our slower rational and logical thinking.

To promote wearing masks in the fight against COVID-19, we must value rational over emotional behavior. Can we have a respectful conversation about it, one that increases understanding and education? Or do we simply expect everyone to wear a mask because, as has been said, “Your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”?

There’s a broad range of opinions on masks, from benign to passionately ideological, and the reasons underlying a decision to wear one or not are unique to each person.

The excuses people give for not wearing a mask: I don’t have one or can't get one. I forgot it; sorry, I’ll remember next time. It’s uncomfortable. It fogs my glasses. I look silly; I’m embarrassed. You can't see my face or my smile. Others aren’t wearing them, so why should I?

For some, not wearing a mask is an expression of resistance or defiance: You can’t tell me what to do. I don't believe health experts. The virus isn’t that serious. A mask makes me look weak and vulnerable. As an American, I value my individual freedom and don’t want to be told what to do.

Why might someone wear a mask? I care about myself and others. My stars and stripes mask expresses that we’re all in this together. I want to be a role model so others will adopt this new habit even if it feels strange at first. I’m afraid of this virus, and I don’t want anyone to die because we’re not doing everything possible to stop its spread.

It’s helpful to have leaders for guidance. When they serve as role models, the maxim “Actions speak louder than words” comes to mind, along with ”Do as I say, not as I do” when leaders fail to model beneficial behaviors. Unfortunately, leaders send mixed messages and give people permission to disregard good advice.

The consequence is that more Americans will suffer, and the very thing we’re trying to avoid will hit us with even more force; that is an irony we must guard against.


David Abrams

David Abrams, PhD
Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences