However, for many the decision whether to wear face masks, or to believe in their effectiveness, is deeper than politics.
“This is such a frustrating problem.” said Dr. Tessa Dover, professor of applied social psychology at PSU. “It’s frustrating that people aren’t following the guidelines. From what we know, masks seem to be a key component of keeping the spread of [COVID-19] down.”
One reason why some ignore the recommendations, she said, can be explained by the psychological theory of terror management.
“Terror management theory…essentially says that we, as humans, are really afraid of our own mortality,” Dover said. “Wearing a mask is acknowledging that there is this virus that could cause your mortality.”
Another reason people aren’t wearing face masks, according to Dover, is pressure from their community.
“From a social-psychological perspective, we might say it’s about your social identity. If the people who you trust, the people who are in your family, your good friends [and] the people in the public who you trust are saying they don’t think masks are necessary, your desire to fit in with that group can make you believe what that group believes.”
Dr. Hyeyoung Woo, a sociology professor whose research focuses on issues around health and well-being, suggested cognitive dissonance plays a role in why people don’t wear masks.
“In general, it’s really difficult for people to change their routine, and it’s really difficult for people to change their behaviors,” Woo said. “If we have to change our behaviors or routine just because someone else tells us to, it’s more difficult. We know wearing a mask is important, but there’s internal resistance to do it, and then we provide explanations.”
However, some early face mask supporters not only embraced the change to their routines, but also helped to promote the use of face masks within their communities.
“I knew I wanted to wear a face mask right away, mainly because I’m really active in the community and I didn’t want to be spreading [coronavirus] if I had it,” said Kevin Terron, a resident of Welches, OR. From his father’s experience in the medical industry, he knew wearing a cloth face mask would help protect those around him.
Terron owns and operates Treefort Lifestyles, what he describes as “an outdoorsy travel and adventure brand.” He used the company sewing machine to make himself a mask in mid-March.
“I made my own and wore it to the grocery store,” Terron said. “A lady from the store had a bandana on. She was nervous about the [COVID-19] thing.”
He told the store clerk that if she gave him one of her bandanas, he’d use it to make her a face mask like the one he wore. She contacted Terron later asking if he could make masks for all the store employees—everyone there wanted one.
“Right then, I knew that I had demand,” Terron said. He began selling face masks on the Treefort Lifestyles website the first week of April. “I put 700 of them up on our website, and they sold in seven hours.”
Katie Watkins, a Portland resident, began making and selling masks in early April. Watkins found herself on furlough, so she turned to a hobby she hadn’t done since she was 11 years old.
“I wasn’t really looking to do this to make money,” Watkins said. “I just needed something to do.”
Providing face masks for her community provided Watkins with something more than just a way to pass the time during the mandated lockdown.
“To understand my sense of worth comes from ‘how I can help my community’ and ‘what are the things that I have that I can give,’” Watkins said. “At this point I think I’ve made upwards of 700 masks.” She’s back at her job, but still receives 30–50 face mask orders every few days.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s slowing down,” Watkins said. “I feel like we’re still at the beginning of this whole thing.”
Dover also suggested an additional reason some may have for not wearing a face mask—the desire for comfort and normalcy.
“It just doesn’t seem worth it to them to wear a mask that’s uncomfortable and prevents them from doing things that they want,” Dover said. “Going out to drink coffee, eating—not things you can do with a mask. I think everyone can commiserate with that a little bit.”
Even face mask makers can commiserate.
“I kind of get the whole stand-against-it scene in the sense having something forced upon you is not freedom, right?” Terron said.
But Woo stresses that thinking individually, without considering the effects on the wider community, is dangerous.
“We are all living together in this community,” Woo said. “As much as it’s important to protect our individual rights, our responsibility to build our community’s health and safety matters.”