Social norms and levels of risk: the psychology behind wearing a mask

Even though the Delta variant is spreading in Ohio, the wearing of the mask remains to a large extent recommended but not obligatory.

Jennifer Taber is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University and studies risk perception.

She says based on previous research, people may not want to wear masks because they think their risk level of contracting COVID is lower now, especially in people who have been vaccinated.

Taber on the COVID risk level

“They don’t think it’s very likely that they will catch COVID, or they think that if they do, it won’t be that bad,” Taber said. “And probably for unvaccinated people, the thought process could be similar.”

Taber says unvaccinated people might perceive the vaccine to have a higher level of risk than COVID due to mistrust of government and pharmaceuticals.

Gov. Mike DeWine and other officials are urging people to put the masks back on, but it is unclear how effective these recommendations are.

John Updegraff, also from the Kent State Department of Psychology, says social norms have affected the wearing of masks in communities, dating back to the start of the pandemic.

Updegraff on people influencing people

“People are generally more likely to do things that they see others doing, and they know other people are advocating for doing it,” Updegraff said.

Updegraff says people become more comfortable with wearing masks when it’s a requirement rather than a personal choice.

On the other hand, the masks becoming obligatory could trigger the phenomenon of psychological reactance. It is then that someone does the opposite of what they are told because they feel that their freedom of choice is threatened.

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About Marjorie C. Hudson

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