American individualism is an obstacle to wider mask wearing in the US

Guests wear face masks while visiting the Disney Springs shopping and dining district in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The Florida Department of Health reported 3,207 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, marking a record daily high for Florida since the pandemic began. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM - NO FILM, NO VIDEO, NO TV, NO DOCUMENTARY)

As Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris call for a national mask mandate, it provides the first glimpse of how efforts to combat the virus may change radically under Democratic leadership. As we have documented previously, a large segment of the American public has been resistant to wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Although we were able to identify important differences in mask usage based on race and partisanship, we were not able to evaluate the underlying reasons that are driving this critical trend.

In our attempt to address this important question, we find that the number one reason given by Americans who are not wearing a mask is that it is their right as an American to not have to do so. This is an important finding that suggests the core principal of individualism in American culture is leading to significant health consequences across the country.

Since mid-March, when President Trump declared the novel coronavirus a national emergency, we have been tracking mask use and social distancing behaviors to stop the spread of the coronavirus through our National Panel Study of COVID-19. As mask wearing becomes more widely recognized as an effective strategy to prevent infection, we asked Americans in our latest wave (fielded between June 2-July 1, 2020; N=5,897) if they wear a mask in public to prevent the spread of the virus. When we compare the results from this wave to the previous wave of the panel study (fielded between April 14-21, 2020; N=2,227), we see that there has been an increase (12%) in reported mask-wearing across the U.S. population. However, we find that 20% of respondents are still not using masks in public to stop the spread of the coronavirus, despite more states either requiring or strongly suggesting that all residents should wear masks when in public.

In an effort to understand why some Americans are resisting this nearly universally recognized infection reduction approach, we asked respondents in this wave why they choose to not wear a mask. As reflected in the figure below, we find that 40% of Americans who do not wear a mask say this is because it is “their right as an American to not wear a mask.” This modal response was followed by Americans who say they do not wear a mask “because it is uncomfortable” at 24%. The data reveals that a combined 64% of Americans believe that their right to not have to be inconvenienced by wearing a mask or scarf over their face is more important than reducing the probability of getting sick or infecting others.

This is a challenge for public-health outreach, as an individual’s underlying sense of personal autonomy is hard to combat with improved or enhanced messaging. In contrast, 18% report that they do not wear a mask because “they do not have access to a mask.” This is an issue that state and local governments can address directly by making masks free and widely available to those who need them. Another 11% report that they do not wear a mask because they believe the coronavirus is a conspiracy (11%). Finally, 7% do not wear a mask because they don’t want to be mistaken as a criminal; in fact, 67% of men of color who aren’t wearing masks indicated that this was the reason why. This fits with our earlier work suggesting that this group is the most likely to believe that wearing a mask can lead to being mistaken for a criminal by police or security guards.

In stark contrast to those who feel it is their right to not wear a mask, a robust 60% of Americans who are wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the virus report doing so to “protect themselves and others.” This collective-based ideology is indicative of a community-oriented spirit among a large segment of Americans. Another 19% report that they are wearing a mask to “protect themselves,” 12% to protect others, and 9% because “it is the law.” The nearly 10% who are responsive to changes in the law provides support for the Biden campaign’s policy approach of creating a national mask mandate.

By better understanding the psychology that is motivating compliance with the recommendations of public-health experts, we can improve our messaging and education outreach efforts to hopefully see more universal compliance with mask usage. Although a large majority report wearing masks, our findings suggest that it may be challenging to persuade the segment of the American population who feel it is their right to refuse to wear a mask. If we ensure that all Americans have access to masks and we continue to stress the collective good that will arise from wearing masks, our data does suggest that the number of Americans who cover their faces with a mask or scarf in public can increase as we head into the fall—when health experts have called for even greater vigilance in guarding against COVID-19.