The psychology of masks: why have so many people stopped covering their faces?

·11-min read
<span>Photograph: Grace Cary/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Grace Cary/Getty Images

Dave stopped wearing his face mask “the second I didn’t have to. I grudgingly wore it, because it was the right thing to do and because it was mandatory,” says the teacher from East Sussex. “But I felt, and still do, that the reason we were told to wear masks was to make scared people feel less scared.” He didn’t feel awkward abandoning his mask, he says, as “hardly anybody bothers”, but he will put one on when visiting the vet, pharmacist or doctor, because he knows they want him to. “I feel it’s the respectful thing to do, but it’s a bit of theatre.”

Every month since July, when the legal requirement to wear face masks – along with other restrictions – ended in England, the number of mask-wearers has dropped. In figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week, 82% of adults reported they had worn a mask outside their home in the previous seven days – a drop from 86% the previous month. But that seems high to me. In my own highly unscientific survey of people coming out of a shopping centre in a south coast town centre last week, only around one in 25 were wearing a mask and overwhelmingly they tended to be older people – the most vulnerable social group. “When everyone else stopped, I stopped,” says Holly. Her friend Chantelle works in a supermarket and also hasn’t worn a mask since July. Does she mind customers not wearing masks? “Not really,” she says, “because I’m not wearing one. Doing an eight-hour shift in it was horrible.” Would they go back to wearing masks? “If we had to, then yeah, I would,” says Holly, but neither would by choice.

Watch: How to wear a face covering comfortably

We may all have to – the clamour to make face masks mandatory again is growing. In Scotland, face coverings are still required in places such as restaurants, bars, shops, entertainment venues and places of worship, as well as for children over the age of 12 in schools. In England, they are “expected and recommended” in crowded and enclosed places, but not legally required, despite calls from many – including trade unions and the NHS Confederation – to make mask-wearing mandatory again amid rising cases of coronavirus. Last week, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, warned we could be seeing a record 100,000 new infections per day this winter. In a press conference, Javid – who, among other ministers, ruled out “plan B” measures for now, which would include mandatory masks – said “there are many things we can all do, like wearing face coverings in crowded or close spaces”. This was mere hours after not wearing a mask in the Commons – an often crowded, and unventilated, chamber. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has refused to commit to wearing a face mask in the Commons, and the leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said his party didn’t need to wear face masks because they know each other.

“There is a very confused messaging from the government,” says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “They declared ‘Freedom Day’, they said that masks could be taken off at a time when we had much higher rates of infection than other countries, and we have continued to have high rates of infection. ” The mixed messaging means “on the one hand, [they’re] saying: ‘It’s all over’ and on the other hand, they’re saying: ‘We may have a very difficult winter ahead.’ The messaging is that we don’t need to worry, punctuated by the occasional message that we do need to worry.”

It was less clear at the start of the pandemic how effective masks would be at reducing infections, but McKee says: “We’ve now got lots of evidence on that.” The government appear to be relying on a “vaccine just” strategy, rather than “vaccine plus”, says McKee, “which is what other European countries are doing, where you say vaccines are very important, but you need other things like vaccine passports, face coverings, better ventilation, and so on.” In most countries in Europe, face masks are still mandatory. One of McKee’s colleagues reported seeing someone getting on a train in France the other day without a mask “and everybody looked so disapprovingly and tutted, that they got off again”.

Summer visitors at  Llandudno Pier
‘The mask in itself is what reminds you that the pandemic is going on’ … summer visitors at Llandudno Pier. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Heather, a Brit who lives in Spain, but returns to the UK quite often, says she is amazed at how different the attitudes to mask-wearing are between the countries. In Spain, mask-wearing is mandatory indoors, and the public message has always been clear. “In the UK, we see politicians not wearing them, whereas in Spain it’s rare to see the president without one. There was a public holiday recently and they had this big parade in Madrid, the army marching, and the royal family and the president there, and everyone wore a mask.” Heather performs in operas and concerts, and even the singers wear masks. “It’s the law, it protects all the other singers, and it protects the audience.”

“Why wouldn’t I wear a mask?” she says. “It’s really no effort. It protects me and others, it’s a really easy thing to do.”

There is a danger in “overstating the negatives”, says Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies subcommittee advising on behavioural psychology. The majority of people – according to the ONS figures – are still wearing masks at least some of the time “and a great majority of people consider masks to be important”.

Early in the pandemic, scientists were telling us that masks were a good idea. “It had no effect, mask-wearing was resolutely around 20%, and people came out with all these explanations about people being inherently anti-mask, that the British won’t wear masks.” There were “racist notions”, says Reicher, “like ‘British people are not pliant like those from Asia’ [where mask-wearing is common]. We made masks a requirement and within a couple of weeks, we went from about 20% to about 80%.”

It wasn’t even about enforcement, he says, it was about a clear signal that masks must be important if they were mandatory. What the government is essentially signalling now, he says, is “that it’s not that important. That’s part of a more general aspect of signalling from the government that infections really don’t matter that much.” If MPs aren’t wearing masks in the crowded Commons, cabinet meetings, or party conferences, “all of that is messaging”.

Face-coverings have symbolic value, he says, when we’re dealing with a virus that is invisible, and one whose worst effects – in intensive care units, for instance – are largely unseen. “The mask is what reminds you that the pandemic is going on. Once you start taking that away, it undermines the sense that there’s a reason to do something. One of the simplest and most obvious and powerful determinants of people taking protective behaviours is a sense of: ‘Is there a level of risk?’ If you say to people there isn’t a risk, then they’re not going to wear masks.”

A mixture of masked and unmasked passengers on the London Underground
It’s at the discretion of London Underground passengers, as on all public transport, whether to wear masks – though some people have exemptions. Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Rex/Shutterstock

The decline in mask-wearing has to do, says Reicher, “not with the failures of the human psyche, but failures of communication, and forms of politicisation, which stop us being able to do the things that are necessary to control the pandemic.” He’s also concerned that telling people that others are not wearing masks – as I am doing in this piece – is “self-defeating, because if you tell people that everybody else isn’t wearing masks, they’re not going to wear masks themselves. We must be careful about being proportionate, not overstating the case.”

But I look around, and it does feel as if it has become the norm not to wear a mask. I stopped wearing one, partly out of habit and partly because I started to feel neurotic when I noticed I was often the only person wearing a mask in shops (I have now gone back to one).

Even if the majority of adults do still wear a mask at least sometimes, this is in decline. Nattavudh Powdthavee, a professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, knows first-hand the pressure to keep in step with the crowd.

“I’m from Thailand, where typically people, before the pandemic, wear masks, because of the history of Sars and other things,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, I started thinking, should I start wearing a mask now?” He says he felt awkward, because mask-wearing hadn’t become normalised in the UK. “Even though I’m a behavioural scientist,” he says with a laugh, “I feel uncomfortable wearing a mask when other people do not.”

One reason Powdthavee thinks mask-wearing is in decline is due to “risk compensation”. Last year in a study with colleagues, they observed that when mask-wearing became mandatory, some people “compensated in terms of risk” and started to socially distance less. Powdthavee believes a similar thing is happening now we have vaccines. “People believe, ‘Well, I am fully protected, I don’t need to worry too much. So if I can choose not to wear a mask, I will choose not to wear a mask.’”

In another study, Powdthavee says: “We found that the decision to wear a mask or not to wear a mask is somewhat tribal. There is a strong social identity attached to it.” Just look to the House of Commons chamber, where most Conservative MPs have stopped wearing masks, while Labour and other opposition MPs largely wear them. In the US, in particular, he says, “it was very political”.

But they also wanted to find out whether mask-wearing was driven by personality – were mask-wearers more cooperative? “When we get people to play economic games together – whether to share the money or steal the money – we didn’t find people who typically wear masks to be much more cooperative than people who do not. One of the conclusions we made was that it makes no difference.” What mattered instead was the “tribalism”, and whether people were playing against someone, they had been told, who also did or didn’t regularly wear a mask. “That’s where the decision to either cooperate or to steal the money comes in – they just want to be tribal. But in and of [mask-wearing] itself, we found no difference. We didn’t find people who wear masks to be intrinsically nicer people.”

Will mask-wearing become a sign of virtue, as Tory MP Gillian Keegan has said (“We’re not,” she said, “the sort of country that tells you what to wear”)? Powdthavee doubts it, unless the societal code shifts and we start to see mask-less people as selfish. “If not wearing a mask is the norm, then there is less stigma in you not wearing a mask. If you want mask usage to go up, it has to come from a place of a mandate.” He doesn’t think it’s enough to rely on people to voluntarily wear masks: “It has to come from the government, I’m afraid.”

Reicher says the framing of the debate around mask-wearing has become too binary. The choice seems to have become one of either lockdown or freedom, with the in-between “restrictions” having got lost somewhat, even though this is what many are calling for. “Things like ventilation to make spaces safe, support for people to self-isolate if they’re ill – that’s not lockdown. Masks are a restriction, not lockdown. If you make everything an issue of lockdown or freedom, then it’s not surprising that people aren’t particularly pro. The problem is that if we don’t do those things, then we’ll be in the same position we were last year, whereby we ignored the need for action until things had run so far out of control that you need to slam on the brakes very hard, and you did need real restrictions.”

Going back to masks would be an easy step, and Reicher believes it wouldn’t be wildly unpopular. “When you look throughout the pandemic, the public on the whole has recognised the need for measures and has been ahead of the government.” The idea that the government is limited by what will be tolerated by the public is “incredibly misleading”, he says. “The psychology on the whole is pretty much fine. People are willing to do the things that are necessary.” Dave, the mask-abandoning teacher, agrees. “If I had to wear a mask again, because it became mandatory, I would do it. Grudgingly,” he says.

Watch: How to remove a face covering correctly

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