The psychology of masks: why have so many people stopped covering their faces?

Posted by on October 26, 2021 5:00 am
Categories: Global Stories

In England, masks are expected and recommended in crowded and enclosed spaces – but not legally required. Many have abandoned them altogether. What would convince everyone to put them back on?

Dave stopped wearing his face mask “the second I didn’t have to. I grudgingly wore it, because it was the right thing to do and because it was mandatory,” says the teacher from East Sussex. “But I felt, and still do, that the reason we were told to wear masks was to make scared people feel less scared.” He didn’t feel awkward abandoning his mask, he says, as “hardly anybody bothers”, but he will put one on when visiting the vet, pharmacist or doctor, because he knows they want him to. “I feel it’s the respectful thing to do, but it’s a bit of theatre.”

Every month since July, when the legal requirement to wear face masks – along with other restrictions – ended in England, the number of mask-wearers has dropped. In figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week, 82% of adults reported they had worn a mask outside their home in the previous seven days – a drop from 86% the previous month. But that seems high to me. In my own highly unscientific survey of people coming out of a shopping centre in a south coast town centre last week, only around one in 25 were wearing a mask and overwhelmingly they tended to be older people – the most vulnerable social group. “When everyone else stopped, I stopped,” says Holly. Her friend Chantelle works in a supermarket and also hasn’t worn a mask since July. Does she mind customers not wearing masks? “Not really,” she says, “because I’m not wearing one. Doing an eight-hour shift in it was horrible.” Would they go back to wearing masks? “If we had to, then yeah, I would,” says Holly, but neither would by choice.

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