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Why Americans Are Having an Emotional Reaction to Masks

Tyler Cowen

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- While Americans still have not adopted mask-wearing as a general norm, we’re wearing masks more than ever before. Mask-wearing is mandated in California, and in many counties masks are near-universal in public spaces. So I have started wondering: Does wearing a mask change our social behavior and our emotional inclinations? And if mask-wearing does indeed change the fabric of our interactions, is that one reason why the masks are not more popular in the U.S.?

When no one can see our countenances, we may behave differently. One study found that children wearing Halloween masks were more likely to break the rules and take more candy. The anonymity conferred by masks may be making it easier for protestors to knock down so many statues.

And indeed, people have long used masks to achieve a kind of plausible deniability. At Carnival festivities around the world people wear masks, and this seems to encourage greater revelry, drunkenness, and lewd behavior, traits also associated with masked balls. The mask creates another persona. You can act a little more outrageously, knowing that your town or village, a few days later, will regard that as “a different you.”

If we look to popular culture, mask-wearing is again associated with a kind of transgression. Batman, Robin and the Lone Ranger wear masks, not just to keep their true identities a secret, but to enable their “ordinary selves” to step into these larger-than-life roles.

But if we examine mask-wearing in the context of Covid-19, a different picture emerges. The mask is now a symbol of a particular kind of conformity, and a ritual of collective responsibility and discipline against the virus. The masks themselves might encourage this norm adherence by boosting the sense of group membership among the wearers.

The public health benefits of mask-wearing far exceed the social costs, but still if we want mask-wearing to be a stable norm we may need to protect against or at least recognize some of its secondary consequences, including the disorientations that masks can produce. Because mask-wearing norms seem weakest in many of the most open societies, such as the United States and United Kingdom, perhaps it is time to come to terms how masks rewrite how we react and respond to each other.

If nothing else, our smiles cannot be seen under our masks, and that makes social interactions feel more hostile and alienating, and it may lower immediate levels of trust in casual interactions. There are plenty of negative, hostile claims about masks circulating, to the point of seeming crazy, but rather than just mocking them perhaps we need to recognize what has long been called “the paranoid style in American politics.” If we admit that mask-wearing has a psychologically strange side, we might do better than simply to lecture the miscreants about their failings.

Just ask yourself a simple question: If someone tells you there is a new movie or TV show out, and everyone in the drama is wearing masks, do you tend to think that’s a feel-good romantic comedy, or a scary movie? In essence, we are asking Americans to live in that scenario, but not quite giving them the psychological armor to do so successfully.

On the brighter side, I wonder if mask-wearing might diminish some expressions of intolerance. People who might feel that others are “looking at them funny” might find themselves with less to be offended by as masks obscure those micro-reactions. Common mask-wearing is already reportedly easing the public judgment experienced by Muslim women who wear face coverings in Western society; some Muslim women who wear the niqab report that they are no longer being given dirty looks, if only because they no longer stick out so much.

Women who cover their faces for religious reasons may now be ahead of the rest of us when it comes to effective communication — because they cannot rely as much their faces to convey emotion in public conversations, they report relying on more visible body language like waving and gesturing.

The tension of current mask policy is that it reflects a desire for a more obedient, ordered society, for public health purposes above all, but at the same time it creates incentives and inclinations for non-conformity. That is true at least within the context of American culture, admittedly an outlier, both for its paranoia and for its infatuation with popular culture. As a society, our public mask-wearing is thus at war with its own emotional leanings, because it is packaging together a message based on both discipline and deviance.

What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness? While there is no simple answer to that question, mask advocates should recognize that they have been treading into unusual cultural territory, and should not be surprised by unusual public responses.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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