How social psychology can begin to explain why we are afraid to remove the mask
Here is the moment we have been waiting for for quite a while now. People are feeling safe, more confident, and Covid-19 is becoming controllable. With Americans stepping up to do their part and getting vaccinated, the end of mandatory face-covering mandates is here. This is bringing some people relief and others a hard choice to make.
Face masks have become much more than a safety precaution over the past year. They have turned into a statement about what you believe and the type of person you are.
We can all agree it is unfair to judge an entire person by any one means and masks are one of them. There has been mask shaming for people who do wear them and for those who don't. I have heard many clients on both sides of the spectrum label people with intense judgments based on their face coverings. I won't repeat the name-calling and character trait judgments here, I think we have all heard enough from each other over this past year and it is truly sad. Since when have we become a society to completely rule out the human and only look at what's on the outside?
Oh sorry, I forgot. What a person has on the outside is the understanding this country was founded on.
So maybe it is the intergenerational trauma within our history that makes it so second nature to us but we don't have to continue the cycle. People will not have a way to judge a person's character as quickly based on a mask anymore. So let's stop judging ourselves as well. Being obsessed with how others view us alters our behaviors and beliefs. Addressing these things will help us get in touch with our values and the facts on with we have created them.
In any event, now that masks are not mandatory, according to the CDC, those who are fully vaccinated can now enter an establishment mask-free. However, seemingly not guilt-free. There is a reason for this that can be explained by social psychology dating back to the early 1900s.
Baron, Byrne and Suls (1989) define social psychology as ....
'the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior in social situations' (p. 6).
Let's look at the nature of what is going on in social situations today.
In the field of Social Psychology one theorist, Leon Festinger, came up with the term Cognitive Dissonance meaning: "a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance (Festinger, 1957)."
So let's put some pieces together. Referring back to my earlier point, people have been judged on their character by whether or not they are wearing a mask. So, specific thoughts and beliefs are held about a behavior.
"If you wear a mask (behavior) you are a good person (belief)"
Now, people are afraid to take their masks off for fear of them judging themselves the way they have judged so many people this past year. This idea of their beliefs not matching behaviors causes dissonance within this creates a very uncomfortable and anxiety-evoking response. Therefore, they will perform the action that decreases this dissonance (continuing to wear the mask) even when that behavior no longer applies. It is a defense mechanism that protects people from feeling uncomfortable.
As humans we like balance, harmony, homeostasis. We don't like dissonance or discomfort.
This cognitive dissonance largely goes unnoticed. We don't even realize we are doing things to decrease any discomfort. When we behave in a subconscious way we don't hold very much control over those actions. Let's start to bring awareness to this one. Think about the way you feel walking into Target without a mask, think about the way you judge others who are or are not wearing a mask.
Begin to ask yourself the reason behind your actions. If you are vaccinated, feel safe, and the establishment allows it, take off your mask with confidence and appreciate what you have missed for so many months. Appreciate all the hard work that our first responders, scientists, and people of America had to go through to get to this point. Begin to bring some rationale to the irrational thoughts that can plague our minds when we have anxiety about a situation.
Cognitive Dissonance is something that comes up so often with all kinds of different choices we have to make on a day-to-day basis. You might experience cognitive dissonance when you don't like your job but have to go to work anyway, when you are on a diet but are craving ice cream, etc.
So, bringing awareness to this idea and 1. changing initial beliefs (people who don't wear masks aren't bad people) 2. adding in new beliefs (we can take our masks off now in a safe way) and/or 3. reduce the importance of that belief (I don't need to care as much what the strangers at Target think of my choices) will help to dissipate the uncomfortable anxiety evoking response (McLeod, 2019).
Overall, it is going to be more and more acceptable to not wear a mask, and it is important to understand your thoughts and feelings around this idea as you decide how you want to behave. If you feel yourself being nervous or anxious to act in a way you believe to be right out of fear of being judged, go through those three options above and get a better understanding of why you might be feeling that way. You will start to gain more confidence in your decisions when you feel like you have more control over them and can make them in a logical way that aligns with your belief, values, AND behaviors.
If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or want to know more information please comment below or feel free to email me!
Baron, R. A., Byrne, D., & Suls, J. (1989). Attitudes: Evaluating the social world. Baron et al, Social Psychology. 3rd edn. MA: Allyn and Bacon, 79-101.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Febuary 05). Cognitive dissonance. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html