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Social Norms and Risk Levels: the Psychology Behind Wearing a Mask

A KN95 mask and a surgical mask
Photo illustration by Max Posner/NPR
At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic in Ohio, face masks, in general, are only recommended. Researchers from Kent State University explain the shift in thinking and behavior for mask wearing.

Even as theDelta variant surges across Ohio, to a large extent mask wearing remains recommended but not required.

Jennifer Taber is an assistant professor in Kent State University’s Department of Psychological Sciences and studies risk perception.

She says that based on prior research, people may not want to wear masks because they believe their risk level for contracting COVID is lower now especially among vaccinated people.

Taber on COVID risk level

“They don't think it's very likely that they'll get COVID, or they think that if they do, it won't be that bad," Taber said. "And probably for unvaccinated people, the thought process might be similar.”

Taber says that unvaccinated people might perceive the vaccine has a higher risk level than COVID because of distrust in government and pharmaceuticals.

Gov. Mike DeWine and other officials are urging people to put masks back on, but it’s unclear just how effective these recommendations are.

John Updegraff, also from Kent State Department of Psychology, says social norms have affected mask wearing in communities, going all the way back to the beginning of the pandemic.

Updegraff on people influencing people

“People are generally more likely to do things that they see other people doing, and they know that other people advocate to be done," Updegraff said.

Updegraff says that people become more comfortable wearing masks when it is a requirement rather than a personal choice.

On the flip side, masks becoming mandated could trigger the psychological reactance phenomenon. That’s when someone does the opposite of what they’re told because they feel their freedom of choice is threatened.

Rachel Gross is a senior journalism major in the Kent State School of Media and Journalism and will be graduating Fall 2021. She is the current general manager of the student-run TV station on Kent State’s campus, TV2, and has covered major political events for the station such as the Presidential Debate in Cleveland. With her minor being in political science, she hopes to work in the political news field after graduation.