There is widespread agreement that one of easiest ways to control the spread of the coronavirus is to wear a face mask, but there are all kinds of reasons why people don't take this basic step, experts said Tuesday.
"That's a simple question with a complex answer," said Jacqueline Gollan, a psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "One, they underestimate the threat. It’s not concrete, it’s abstract. And prevention is a difficult thing to measure."
After nearly two months of quarantine, Gollan said, many people are suffering from "mental fatigue."
"People are constantly calculating the gain/loss of doing everyday things like going to the grocery store and not wearing a mask," she said. "Some will go for the shortcut."
The refusal to wear a mask, which has been mandated in numerous cities and states, allegedly figured in the death of security guard Calvin Munerlyn, 43, who was fatally shot after he barred a customer from a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, because she wasn't wearing a mask.
Munerlyn's death placed a spotlight on the people whose job it has become to enforce regulations that rub a lot of people wrong.
"In general, people do not like to be told what to do,” said Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, a professor of communication at Michigan State University.
“Their reactions to being told what to do, however, vary,” Dorrance Hall said in an email. “For example, if a person was told not to eat cake at a birthday party, they may seek to restore their freedom directly by doing the forbidden act.”
Or, Dorrance Hall said, they might express anger at the person denying them cake or “exercise a different freedom to regain the feeling of control and choice” by eating something else like potato chips, Hall said.
Some groups, like adolescents, are more prone to riskier behavior like going without masks, Gollan added.
"Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to control one’s own behavior and in wanting to feel like they’re in control they will do something like this," Gollan said. "Sometimes, it's a matter of people thinking that wearing a mask doesn't work, or they disbelieve the science."
It doesn't help that on the subject of face masks, there have been mixed messages from the White House.
President Donald Trump has not worn a mask in public places, including Tuesday at a factory in Arizona where they make masks to protect people from the coronavirus.
“If it’s a mask facility, I will yeah,” Trump replied.
“To not see your leaders wearing masks in public or on photo ops suggests they excluded from the guidelines or they don’t see it as warranted,” Gollan said.
Gollan was referring to Vice President Mike Pence, who was on the receiving end of harsh criticism after he didn’t wear a mask while on a recent visit to the Mayo Clinic, a decision he later said he regretted.
Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, said Trump’s supporters would be more likely to wear masks if the president led by example.
There is some new research which suggests that Trump supporters are less likely to wear masks — and practice other preventative measures like social distancing.
Kaplan said that kind of groupthink can lead to bad choices like not wearing face masks during a pandemic.
“We find that when beliefs become shared by social groups and are part of how we identify that they are very difficult to change, even in the face of scientific evidence,” he said. “Sharing beliefs is one of the ways we bond with others, and the desire to bond with others is so strong that often it distorts the objective evaluation of information.”
Also, the fact that some people wear masks when in crowds does not automatically mean they are in favor of other measures aimed at combatting the pandemic. Case in point: many of the armed demonstrators protesting in Michigan and elsewhere wore masks on their faces.
Gollan said she suspects they weren’t just trying to mask their identities.
“I wonder if the intent was both to protect identity and health,” she said. “It can be both things.”