The Psychological Effect of Face Masks–Perpetuating and Reinforcing Fear

 Purse. Keys. Wallet. Mask.  For many of us in this “new normal,” even a trip to the grocery store has become an ordeal.  We wonder if we will be judged for standing too close to the person in front of us.  We wonder if our children will be affected by breathing recycled air.  We wonder if we should disinfect for a second time the cart we are using.  Our noses itch, and our glasses fog up as we wait to check out.  Once we are in our own cars, we rip off the mask and breathe a sigh of relief.  

For many of us, this “new reality” rings all too true.  Many emotions swirl behind the small 4 x 6 inch piece of cloth–fear, anxiety, apathy, anger, annoyance.  Let’s all pause, take a deep breath, and be encouraged that we are not crazy—or alone— in having these feelings. In fact, there is a psychological basis that explains these varied and unpredictable feelings. It turns out that living in constant fear of a microscopic enemy and guarding our facial expressions with a mask have real psychological consequences. After months of living in fear of  COVID-19, hope was on the horizon as the mandatory lockdown lifted and our state slowly reopened. Then, on June 18, Governor Newsom announced an obligatory face mask order wherein all Californians must wear a face covering in public. Although the purpose of this mandate was to slow the spread of COVID-19, there is a distinct emotional consequence to mandatory mask wearing: perpetuating chronic fear.

When we are exposed to fear-inducing stimuli—such as the coronavirus—our sympathetic nervous system activates us to either fight or flee. And rather than reacting rationally, we instead react emotionally and impulsively. Many are now responding with highly emotional behaviors, like glaring when someone leaves their mask in the car, shaming those who touch produce in the grocery store, or avoiding people who unconsciously infringe on their 6-foot bubble. Society has been conditioned to view masks as being threatening. The immediate and subconscious reaction to seeing someone in a mask is uncertainty, and possibly even fear.  In the wise words of Fezzik from The Princess Bride, “Be careful; people in masks cannot be trusted.”  Ironically, the hero of that story Westley also predicted that “everyone will be wearing them in the future!” 

As Fezzik points out, masks can signify that we are “hiding” something, which instinctively causes alarm. For a populace already on heightened alert from the virus, this can cause a cascade of fear-based reactions. When we are afraid, we search our environment for cues that either dismiss or reinforce our anxiety.  Facial expressions, which enable us to communicate nonverbally with others, are partially obscured with face masks, so we must interpret whatever data is available. Because these masks cover the polite “social smile” that we offer to strangers, masks end up reinforcing rather than dismissing our fears, and subsequently confirming that we are unsafe and need to be frightened. In addition, research has shown that perceived empathy is hindered by wearing face masks, which may cause significant misunderstandings. This is why when we step into a grocery store wearing a mask, we may feel hyper-alert and misinterpret others’ emotions and reactions.  

Psychological research has also shown that wearing face masks decreases inhibitions, so people are more likely to discard socially appropriate boundaries and engage in more aberrant or deviant behavior.  Masks grant anonymity–decreasing individual identity and increasing group conformity, which, when taken to an extreme can lead to a dehumanizing mob mentality, radical groupthink, and extreme actions that promote an overall unease at seeing a mask that has nothing to do with protecting from a virus. Rest assured, however, this is not typically the case when we go buy milk. 

Though these facts might sound disheartening at first, they are actually encouraging. There is a reason for feeling fearful, stressed, anxious, and overly sensitive to people’s emotions; and thankfully, this reason is circumstantial. The stimuli and environmental factors that are causing these fear-based emotions are rooted in our unique, and most importantly, temporary circumstance.  We will go back to the “old normal,” we will see each other’s smiles again, and the only glares we will give are to the guy in front of us who has more than fifteen items in his cart.  

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