The psychology of wearing masks: Why some people are complying and others are not

University of Saskatchewan faculty member Jan Gelech says compliance or non-compliance with mask rules during the pandemic depends on several factors including personality, political stance and the culture you belong to.

Psychology faculty member Jan Gelech says personality, culture and social psychology all play a role

University of Saskatchewan psychology faculty member Jan Gelech says people are more likely to wear masks if people they like and respect are wearing masks, and if they see a majority of people wearing masks. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Saskatchewan saw an all-time high of 78 new cases of COVID-19 in one day on Saturday, and the province's chief medical health officer says reducing the spread of COVID-19 is our personal responsibility as citizens.

Yet not everyone is complying with the pandemic measures, including wearing a mask.

University of Saskatchewan psychology faculty member Jan Gelech said compliance — or non-compliance — is due to many factors.

Personality is one. Gelech said studies have shown that extroverts are wearing masks less.

"They're very talkative, extroverts, and they tend to be quite energetic and social," Gelech told CBC's Saskatoon Morning. "You'll see some people having this urge to pull their mask down when they're really, really getting excited."

On the other side, the people who are more likely to wear masks are people who are "conscientious."

"People who are careful and diligent and organized … across their life," Gelech said. "They like to follow rules."

She said research out of the U.S. suggests people who identify as conservative are less likely to wear a mask.

Culture plays into compliance as well.

Gelech said the Western world — including Canada, the U.S., and western parts of Europe — has an egocentric culture.

"Egocentric cultures as a whole have a tendency to focus a little bit more on my drives, my preferences, my individual well-being."

In Eastern cultures, the well-being of the group is always top of mind, she said.

"Other cultures literally see the world as a member of a group, first and foremost, before they think of themselves as individuals. And what we find is mask-wearing in some of those cultures, it's going a bit better. 

"And in fact, if you've ever travelled or spent much time in international airports, you'll know that a lot of people from these cultures have been wearing masks, whenever they're not feeling well, for years." 

'It's just social pressure'

Gelech said there are several social psychology processes that explain in part why people act the way they do in social settings.

Normative conformity, for example, is following the cues of people you like and respect. Informational conformity is below your conscious awareness, she said, like seeing a majority of people wearing masks.

"That is, whether I know it or not, telling my brain, 'Masks are important. These people know something that maybe I don't know.' … We really are uncomfortable not doing something that other people are doing because of our evolutionary psychology brain, which tells us, hmm, I don't know, maybe just do what they're doing."

Use advertising tactics

When it comes to conspiracy theories and the anti-mask movement, she suggests public health officials use advertising tactics to influence attitudes.

"Like making messengers really likable and relatable. Creating a sense not of rampant fear and terror, but creating a sense of personal risk, like helping to draw in maybe some of these young people by allowing them to see what some … healthy young people look like when they get this illness, right, because they're most likely to pay attention to messages when they feel really relevant to us."

Social pressure is also more effective than fines and other punishments, Gelech said.

"We can really self-police as communities. I think that will be very important and is really starting to have an impact."

CBC Saskatchewan wants to tell more stories about how the pandemic is touching the province's most vulnerable and marginalized populations. How has COVID-19 affected you? Share your story using our online questionnaire.


Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from Saskatoon Morning