Why Some People May Refuse to Wear a Mask

Nov 4, 2020

The business of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 might seem to you like a matter of science, but it’s also a matter of personal bias according to one professor of psychology. 

He spoke with Sandy Hausman about why some people won’t mask up, and whether believers can persuade them to do so. 

Retired UVA Psychology Professor Dennis Proffitt says mandatory wearing of masks upsets people who value individual freedom.
Credit UVA

This country was founded on some core beliefs that most of us share today according to Dennis Proffitt, a professor of psychology, emeritus at UVA.

“One of them is e pluribus unum, and essentially it means Out of Many One or All for One and One for All.," he says. "The second motto is Don’t Tread on Me: the right to choose individual freedoms and individual liberties.”

And whether you decide to wear a mask when they’re not required depends, he says, on which belief you treasure most in this situation.

“The people who either do or don’t agree that everyone should be wearing a mask are not doing so because they hold some evil motives.  They’re holding to values that we, on both sides of the issue, hold to be very dear,” Proffitt explains.

Those who support mask-wearing by everyone in any public space might cite scientific consensus – that masks provide protection, but Profitt says people who choose to go maskless may be skeptical about the validity of science and believe scientists are always changing their minds.  At first, for example, they  said masks would keep you from infecting others.  Now, they believe masks also afford protection to the wearer.

Whatever your views, he adds, people are mostly unaware of their own biases.  He presents an example from the world of sports, where Virginia fans might be convinced the referees favor Duke.

“I’m going to notice all of the egregious errors that the refs make that favor the Duke side and are a detriment to Virginia, and I’m going to be convinced that I’m right, because everybody sitting around me sees the same egregious errors and boos the refs at the same time that I feel inclined to do so," says Proffitt. "On the other hand there are people who are Duke fans, and they’re seeing things exactly opposite.”

Still not convinced?  Proffitt compares this situation to the way we speak.

“You can hear the accent of other people. You can’t hear your own.  You don’t have an accent, but of course you do!  Everybody has one!” 

Those who believe in the importance of masks may confront the maskless and try to shame them, but Proffitt says that won’t work.

“Shaming gets at the idea that this person is doing something wrong, and if you shame them they are going to dig their heels in even more. They’re going to feel that you’ve tried to humiliate them.”

That’s not to say it’s impossible to win someone over, but Proffitt says it takes a special person to persuade.

“If one is extraordinarily polite and reasonable, maybe you can make a difference.  I’d like to think that Mr. Rogers could pull this off, but not many of us have his abilities.”

The best the rest of us can hope for is consideration for our feelings – especially when talking to a friend or relative.

“If you don’t want to wear a mask in situations where you’re with other people who also don’t want to wear masks, fine. But if you’re around me, it makes me uncomfortable and also fearful, so I would appreciate it if you would wear a mask when we’re together.”

And if those in government feel strongly enough to pass a law restricting individual freedoms for the greater good, then many more people will come around.

“Yes, over time if everybody is wearing a motorcycle helmet or wearing a seatbelt or driving the speed limit, some people will change their minds.  Other people won’t, but they’ll go along with it because there are consequences if they disobey the law.”

Proffitt spells out these ideas in his new book, co-authored by Drake Baer.  It’s called Perception.