The (very general) Psychology Behind Refusing to Wear a Mask

Ermell - via Wikimedia Commons.

Disclaimer: this piece is from October 2020. The ideas reflect a time well before we were able to adjust to normalcy (or even get vaccinated). 

We’ve all seen the enraging videos of Americans aggressively refusing to wear masks, even in areas where they are required. Though some of those who refuse to wear them will proudly claim themselves rebels and all others “sheep,” we see ubiquitous patterns in their defiance; most claim and support the same things. Many will claim that “it is my freedom to choose whether I wear a mask or not,” “this is a free country,” “I can’t breathe with it on,” or “COVID doesn’t exist,” to the point at which it feels the “rebels” are reading from a script once a fed-up onlooker begins to record them. 

Although those who refuse to mask up generally cite the same reasons for their rebellion, what is the actual psychology behind their refusal – or better yet, hesitance?

Because COVID-19 and mask defiance are both novel topics, we must understand that the psychological factors behind them are not fully-understood. Those factors could include health issues, such as asthma, emphysema, COPD, and other lung conditions. Regarding psychological factors, there are many, not all of which relate to politics. We will discuss some (“some,” not all) psychological factors responsible for the rebellion against masking.

Because we will be discussing a highly-controversial topic, I will do my best to give independent analysis and refrain from bias. If I appear to be biased or covering a side inaccurately, please let me know (contact information is available at the end of this entry).

You may notice that I have not and will not call people who refuse to wear masks “anti-maskers.” You may question this, perhaps, because it does require some grammatical maneuvering to refrain from its use. I avoid “anti-masker” because of its malignant political connotation. The phrase purposely alienates the person refusing to wear the mask. By calling them an anti-masker, we thus attempt to manipulate them into conforming with you and with the rest of the population; yet, we forget that they are rebelling unequivocally against conformity. We only further enlighten their rebellion by using derogatory phrases against them. Think of a rebellious teenager: if you try to punish them or lock them away for prior rebellion, you will likely see that they will not only continue to rebel against you, but will do it at an even greater magnitude. Although this nonconformity is an adolescent rebellion for adults, the people following this movement must be treated with respect and patience. As Martin Luther King said, no person is inherently bad or evil – but every person can do bad or evil things.

Political Psychology for the No Mask Rebellion

The no-mask rebellion is generally most prevalent in the United States, although other countries (for example, Germany and Sweden) tend to shy away from masking as well. In most countries in which the rebellion occurs frequently, the mask defiers generally reside along party lines. In March of 2020, for example, when the CDC began recommending the universal use of cloth masks in public areas, Trump was quick to violate the universality of the proposed measure. As he was questioned on the recommendation, the President responded by saying: “So with the masks, it’s going to be, really, a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that’s okay. It may be good. Probably will. They’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation. It’s voluntary.”

While this response is quite neutral, there is a very key and slightly hidden component of this quote that, when I wrote this, I missed, at first. Listen to these two specific sentences, and I quote, “You don’t have to do it, I’m choosing not to do it.” There is a common phrase that is very important in the political world. The phrase is, “lead by example.” While choosing not to wear a mask was a personal choice for Mr. Trump, and while at the time he did have that choice himself, he had set a dangerous example that his supporters began to follow. This is an example of the partisanship of this particular rebellion (German rebellions, too, tend to follow Trump). While Trump himself did not instigate the rebellion, the precedent he created did.

Non-Political Psychology

Despite the claims among some that masks are no major adjustment, there are some non-political issues responsible for mask hesitancy, like anxiety. Anxiety could derive from actual mental health disorders like OCD, ADHD, ADD, among others, or it could come from the need to conform (this being in a situation in which most are not wearing masks) or even a poor self-image.


Mental disorders like ADHD, ADD, and OCD do often lead to masking anxiety. I have OCD, an anxiety disorder in which I match my anxieties with actions seeking to “mitigate” that which I am anxious about. Although I generally mask up, I had – at first – a lot of difficulty adjusting to masking. The first few times I wore a mask, I felt quite claustrophobic; after those first few times, I wore the mask less once I saw that everyone around me wasn’t. While my anxiety generally focuses on debilitating diseases and intelligence, I experienced some anxiety from only my appearance. I live in a very conservative town, and many of the people in my town act in defiance to mask ordinances. The fact that a vast majority of the people around me were not wearing masks, which made me very uncomfortable doing so myself, resulted in my early mask hesitance (although I now wear masks all the time, perhaps more than anyone around me). I began to practice – to get more comfortable – by wearing a mask at home, by myself, or when in the car. I later adjusted to occasionally wearing masks in outdoor public settings, later allowing me to gain enough confidence to not even notice the mask. My experience is evidence that political affiliation is by no means the only factor that determines whether people mask up or not.*

Overall, it is evident that the bridge to wearing masks can be difficult for many individuals. The hesitancy underscores the importance that we handle people defying mask orders with respect and patience rather than denigration and aggression. Masks are very important tools to curb the spread of COVID-19, the cold and flu, but we must understand why people feel uncomfortable wearing them before we assume their political affiliation. In no way does this attempt to excuse the defiance of mask ordinances as justifiable. It is still our duty to protect the ones around us, and it is still our duty to care for our brethren. 

* In the episode related to this entry, which is available on the Learning by William podcast, a guest speaker spoke on her difficulties adjusting to masking in relation to her ADHD. In a two-minute, eleven-second clip, she spoke of the challenges she faced in adjusting to masking. To hear the clip directly, you can listen to the podcast episode, available here.

If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, please comment on this post or email with your concerns. Thank you.


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