As the sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out, within groups, people generally seek to “pass” and to avoid behaving in ways that others may see as stigmatizing, “tainting” or bad. Many people hesitate to don masks because of implicit group pressures and concerns about what others may think. Generally, people want to be liked and accepted, not rejected or shunned. They seek to appear friendly and open, not hostile, paranoid or afraid. Yet these deep-seated emotional reactions are now hurting us in ways that public health experts and the rest of us urgently need to address far more than we have.
Stigma can, however, work both ways, either boosting or blocking behaviors that can be lifesaving for public health. Smoking went from being a “cool” norm to being widely frowned upon, though that took years of medical research and public health campaigns. Before 9/11, you could leave your suitcase in an airport terminal momentarily to go to the bathroom; now it triggers fear and police intervention, likewise reinforced by unceasing public messages: “If you see something, say something.”
In the mid-1990s, as a faculty member in Columbia’s School of Public Health, I engaged in fierce debates about whether to try to stigmatize people who didn’t wear condoms. Many advocates for AIDS patients argued that we would then be “blaming the victim,” since people living with H.I.V. would thereby be forced to reveal they had the virus. But public health experts persevered, arguing that anyone who is sexually active with multiple partners should wear a condom, not just those who were H.I.V.-positive. Celebrities like Magic Johnson reinforced the message by publicly disclosing their own infections and urging safer sex practices, helping to increase condom use.
A number of competing psychological factors can play a role in whether people decide to wear masks. Research suggests, for example, that if few people in a community are wearing a mask, others are more likely to think that these individuals are at increased risk for being infected. But as the virus spreads in a community, norms can shift. Now, in my own Manhattan neighborhood, it can feel stigmatizing not to wear a mask. Everyone seems to don one. If you don’t, people give you dirty looks or eye you warily. I, too, have looked askance at carelessly unmasked passers-by.
But elsewhere, mask wearing runs the gamut. At a Pennsylvania Walmart I visited, despite signs announcing that the state required masks in stores, many people lacked them, and no one seemed to care. I’ve seen Manhattan bars packed with young people in the evening with no one covering their face. It seemed to be “cool” not to care.
According to studies, people who have had personal experience with a particular risk think it’s more likely to occur, and they weigh it more heavily in their decisions. Generally, young people have known fewer people with severe Covid-19 symptoms and therefore are less concerned.
Research suggests, too, that the more people see others with masks, the more likely they are to wear one themselves. Exposure to groups covering their faces makes people feel less strange about also doing so.