Not wearing a face mask invites public shaming, not to mention boosts your risk of COVID-19. So what keeps some of us from putting one on?

By Claire Gillespie
July 01, 2020
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In the early days of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said healthy people didn’t need to wear face masks. But on April 3, the CDC issued a recommendation advising everyone to wear a cloth face mask or covering in public to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Naturally, there was some confusion—not helped by the fact that President Trump himself, and many members of his cabinet, opted not to wear a face mask.

But that was several weeks ago, and the message is now clear: Wearing a face mask helps to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. On top of the CDC advice, most states have issued their own rules regarding face coverings. On June 23, Washington was the latest to announce a statewide mandate requiring that all residents wear face masks in any indoor public space, as well as outdoors if they can’t adhere to social distancing. 

But some people still refuse to put on a mask or face covering when they leave the house, regardless of the rules in their local area. To be clear, we're talking about people who should be wearing a mask, per the CDC, which includes almost all healthy kids and adults. "Cloth face coverings should NOT be worn by children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance," according to the CDC. 

Some mask-refusers are getting called out on social media. On June 22, San Diego resident Amber Lynn Gilles took to Facebook to “out” a Starbucks barista who refused to serve her because she wasn’t wearing a face covering per local and state rules. 

And on June 24, a Florida woman stood up at a meeting of the Palm Beach County Commissioners and declared, “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear, things gotta breathe.” (In Florida, many areas have ordered residents to wear face masks at all times when in public, following skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 diagnoses in recent weeks.) 

The comment from the unidentified woman in Florida was met with laughter and some cheers. But for many people who are following the rules and wearing a face mask when they're out in public, it’s no joke. In fact, it can be infuriating, because people like this are flaunting rules meant to slow the spread of a deadly disease.

If you're a faithful mask wearer, it’s natural to find yourself getting angry when you see people out in public without one, says California-based psychiatrist and author Gayani DeSilva, MD. “When one believes that their safety will be greatly improved by wearing face masks, and others are not complying with that act, it can create fear, which leads to resentment and anger,” Dr. DeSilva tells Health. 

So what's up with these people who won't adhere to the guidelines and wear masks? These four reasons from experts in human behavior can help explain it.

Competing messages have confused people

Dr. DeSilva believes that oppositional messages in the media and from people in positions of authority, such as government officials, could be making us unsure of whether to wear a mask or not. “Messages lose credibility when they are presented as fact one day, only to be described differently the next,” she says. “On the other hand, credibility increases when data and opinions are presented with factual backing. The public can be told more about how the evolving information changes the official message, and then there will be more public buy-in. Adults do not like to be told what to do without understanding the reasons behind it.”

New York psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD, agrees that it’s easier to do something—even if you don’t entirely want to—when one clear and concise message states that it’s the best step to take. “When it seems like there are a menu of options out there, naturally you will choose the thing that seems most appealing to you,” she explains. “Lots of people may feel like the mask is an imposition on their life and feels uncomfortable, so if there is a public message that validates that, you are going to tune into that. If you don’t want to wear masks, you can find a stream of information online that reinforces your decision.” 

Denial is a strong motivator

Denial might be at the root of some people’s refusal to wear a face mask—and it’s an extremely powerful defense mechanism. “Denial kicks in automatically when someone can’t handle the depth and seriousness of a situation,” Dr. DeSilva explains. “The COVID-19 crisis is traumatizing, and many psychological defenses will arise to help individuals cope. Denial leads to avoidance, and then leads to not hearing the facts, which in turn leads to not following safe measures to prevent the thing they fear. It is a vicious, unhelpful cycle, which ultimately contributes to the problem.” 

Feeding into this denial are a growing number of conspiracy theories and other out-there ideas about the pandemic. “Wild ideas can get traction and get a following on social media,” says Dr. Seide. “There are voices out there questioning the data we are being presented with regarding the prevalence and severity of COVID-19; it has become something of a movement. There are people literally denying the virus, and there are people who are subconsciously in denial about the virus.”

Not wearing a mask puts a person in control

Even though the crisis isn’t over, many of us simply want to move on and have some control over our lives again, the way we used to. Guidelines have loosened up in some areas, and this is the phase of the pandemic when more people have some choices to make, says Dr. Seide. For some people, that means going in the extreme other direction, blowing off social distancing and going mask-free. “Some are choosing to rebel against everything that has been forced on them for the past few months—including wearing masks. The mask has become the symbol of COVID-19, so it makes sense that some people reject it.” 

Some of us simply refuse to be team players

If you’re wondering if some folks are just selfish and just can't be bothered with putting on a face mask—or they feel above the law and don’t think the rules apply to them—then you might be right. “I do think some people have a sense of elitism, narcissist traits, or a better-than-others kind of self-image,” says Dr. DeSilva. “This is largely due to defense mechanisms also—born of fear and feeling cut off from others.” 

Some mask refusers see the issue only in terms of their comfort and safety; out of thoughtlessness or selfishness, they don't understand that wearing a face mask can prevent the virus from spreading not just to them but to their family members and community as well. They don't see the benefit of doing something for the greater good, even if it is inconvenient.

“In general, people treat others the way they feel about themselves,” says Dr. DeSilva. “So if they don’t care about the welfare of others, it’s likely that they have deep insecurities where they have difficulty feeling compassion for themselves and exercising self-care.”   

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