Why Do Some Wear Masks When Others Don’t?

  • 2 months   ago
Why Do Some Wear Masks When Others Don’t?

How people see COVID’s risk predicts if they take action to protect themselves

COVID has rocked the US since March. Now, as many other countries roll back their COVID restrictions, Americans are left wondering how much longer this “new normal” is going to last. People in the US continue to hold very different opinions from each other on whether they should have to do things like wear a mask, maintain social distance, and frequently wash their hands. In addition to these differences, it seems that many Americans are also questioning each other’s perceptions of COVID––some people seem to see it as a big risk, while others don’t seem to see it as a risk at all. Although many things can shape people’s behavior, psychologists have learned that how people perceive the risk of a threat (the likelihood that a threat will cause harm) matters a lot for how they behave in response to the threat (Slovic, 2000). For COVID, it may be that how people see COVID’s risk predicts how they will act regarding COVID––for instance, whether or not they wear a mask. If that’s the case, then if we can change perceptions, we can likely change behaviors.

To find out more, we asked a nationally representative sample of 512 Americans how much of a risk they thought COVID was to them, their loved ones, the average American, and to the US as a nation. Then, we asked them for their thoughts on how important it is for them and others to follow COVID-related restrictions, even if it might mean sacrificing personal comfort or economic prosperity. Finally, we asked them if they had been complying with COVID-related restrictions.


As it turns out, there is a lot of variation in how Americans view COVID’s risk, and furthermore, these differences strongly predicted attitudes about COVID and COVID-related behaviors. People who saw COVID as a bigger risk were more likely to think CDC-recommended COVID restrictions were important and worth following compared to people who saw COVID as a smaller risk. Most importantly, people who saw COVID as a bigger risk were more likely to follow COVID restrictions, like wearing masks, social distancing, and frequently washing their hands. We also found that people’s political preferences and news media consumption influenced people's risk perceptions for COVID, such that those who were more liberal and watched/read more news saw COVID as a bigger risk.

Because there is rock-solid evidence that COVID restrictions can be effective over time (Grossman, Kim, Rexman, & Thirumurthy, 2020), these findings have important implications for future public health policies, particularly for risk communication strategies. Specifically, it suggests that risk perceptions shape our attitudes about COVID and, subsequently, what decisions (if any) we make to protect ourselves from it. It may be challenging to influence other factors shaping our public health-related behaviors, such as political preferences or news media consumption. However, public health policies can successfully raise people’s awareness and perceptions of the risk associated with COVID, which should prove effective in combating COVID and future pandemics.

GUEST BLOG: Daniel W. Snook.  Ph.D. Candidate, Georgia State University