On or Off? The Psychological Divide Of Mask Wearing

May 19, 2021

We all have heard about the most recent coronavirus guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control– fully-vaccinated people are finally allowed to go mask-less indoors. Well, in most cases that is. But, it’s controversial and even politicized, for many reasons. Some are confused by the CDC’s seemingly wishy-washy stance on how to properly handle the pandemic. Others are unsure who or what to believe now-a-days. 

New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has decided to implement these measures. A state, which has had some of the most restrictive health orders in the nation. But as New Mexico starts opening up, residents are still unsure of whether the mask should be on or off. 

“I feel sort of strongly that we don’t quite know the long-term efficacy of these vaccines and whether or not they will continue to be as effective as they have been for the next several months, year, or however long."  

That’s Brittany Karnezis, a resident of Albuquerque explaining why she’s going to continue masking up. And yes, she’s fully vaccinated. 

“ I honestly don’t think New Mexico is ready for it, and I quite frankly don’t think anywhere in the country is ready for it at this time," Karnezis said.

She points to the surge of COVID-19 cases in India as an example of why the public should be on its toes at all times. For her, it’s a roll of the dice to trust that this won’t happen in the U.S.

“It’s… It’s… Decimating entire communities and we’ve seen how that can happen here," Karnezis said. "I think it would be just as easy for a new strain to worm its way into one small community. And we know how quickly that spreads.” 

On the other side of the aisle, there’s people that can’t wait to get back to life before COVID-19. 

Nick Driver is a customer service representative based in Albuquerque. He said he’s not going to wear a mask in public because he believes it doesn’t protect people. He has not received any vaccinations.  

“From what I’ve seen– the science and everything. Especially with Florida and Texas, it just doesn’t seem that masks change anything," Driver said. "The spread is going to spread.” 

But, Nick says he’s still on the fence on the whole state going mask-less. 

"As a whole? No. I don’t believe so," Driver said. "But at the same time, I believe in personal liberties. You’re responsible for yourself. I mean, personal accountability is a huge thing here. We know there is a vaccine out there that helps. We know some people want to wear masks. That’s perfectly fine. Go ahead, wear your mask, get your vaccine, do what you want to do. Do what’s right for you. But, it’s not right for everybody."

It’s important to note that the CDC has done research on the effectiveness of mask-wearing and says wearing a cloth-mask IS effective in reducing exposure to infectious droplets in the air. 

But, the point of contention here is buried in the black and white of it all. The decision to be or not to be, to wear a mask or not, has to do with a unique psychological phenomenon called dichotomous thinking. Here’s clinical psychologist Dr. Gerald Chavez to explain. 

“Dichotomous thinking is black and white. Us and them. That type of thinking," Chavez said. "The problem with dichotomous thinking, and I’m going to make a dichotomous statement to prove dichotomous thinking is wrong, and that is dichotomous thinking is never right. The reason it’s never right is because you will always find examples of something else.” 

A way to stop this dangerous way of thinking? Mindfulness. 

“When you’re being mindful, you’re learning to not judge others. Because when you do, you’ve created a relationship that will be tainted by that belief system," Chavez said. "Like: These people are always. Or: That person wearing a mask is obviously a this or a that. No they’re not! They may be doing that for many reasons and we need to honor what they’re doing."

It was at this point in our conversation that Dr. Chavez brought up a study he found published in the National Library of Medicine that found less people are opposed to social distancing than mask wearing.

“Do masks not only create an 'us and them' in a dichotomous environment, but do they also hide emotion that we are used to reading in others? So we’ve taken away alot of our emotional content in relating to others," Chavez said. "That’s about 80% sometimes of what we get, is what we see on the body language. The masks have created these stoic creatures with eyes and nothing else.” 

We all keep hearing that life will soon be getting back to normal. But for Dr. Chavez, the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long term impact on both the human psyche and daily life. 

“See, once you done a behavior for about 13-14 months, it almost becomes second nature. Like immediately strapping on your seatbelt or covering your mouth when you cough or different things like that," Chavez said.  

He says that we should look to countries like Japan or China that have normalized the use of masks when sick, but to also remember human contact is needed to keep mental health in check.  

“What will happen is the things we’ve achieved that are really helpful will become the norm," Chavez said. "Perfect example: I'm going to Mexico here next week to meet with one of my teachers there. I don't even think twice now about taking my shoes off, removing my belt, blah blah blah. Now I just need to add a mask to that craziness. Remember, we've been living with that craziness for 20 years. It has now become the norm. Let’s say for example flu season comes up and some people decide: ‘Well, if I wear a mask do I not have to get the flu shot?’ I think we’re going to move the science with us and evolve as we go. I think we'll get back to face-to-face because that is going to save humanity– always having face-to-face contact with people.” 

 

So, the moral of the story here? Be kind. Don’t judge. Follow public health orders. And, if you're not vaccinated– mask up.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that fully-vaccinated individuals can choose to not wear a mask.