The psychology of wearing masks in businesses

Face coverings are now compulsory in many indoor settings and the general public are gradually becoming accustomed to this new way of living but the directive from the government still receives a surprising amount of opposition.

Neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist Dr Shaw looks at why we feel the way to do about masks and the psychology of wearing them.

psychology of wearing masksDr Shaw explains the psychology of wearing masks and how businesses can help their employees in 2020.

  1. We rely on facial cues – Humans derive meaning from non-verbal communication and heavily rely on facial cues in social situations. Facial expressions can convey sadness, excitement, anger, happiness, confusion, surprise and many more emotions; all of which are often conveyed through the mouth and eyes, and if someone is wearing sunglasses this can be a problem. Research has found that the brain doesn’t like not to be able to see the mouth of the person we are talking to as we struggle to interpret expressions and emotional cues which in turn interferes with our feelings for survival.
  2. The brain misinterprets – We feel anxious and uncomfortable because our brain is more likely to misinterpret a conversation between people wearing masks. For example, when the mouth is covered, we can confuse anger with disgust and fear with surprise which can add to anxiety and feeling of vulnerability. It is also obviously harder to hear people talking to us so there is a greater chance of miscommunication which means people are riskily tempted to at least partly remove their mask to be heard.
  1. Cultural differences – There is a surprising amount of opposition to masks particularly throughout the western hemisphere which suggests that there is a cultural bias towards this concept. Many people in eastern cultures, such as Asia, widely accept face coverings and have worn them for many years. Since Western countries have only recently been introduced to wearing masks in public, it is likely that it will take some time for this practice to feel normal. Asian cultures more readily rely on the eyes to convey facial expression. Don’t forget that also in some cultures, a woman wears a veil to look more alluring, think a western bride or a veil in the harem.
  2. A threat to freedom – Ultimately humans often don’t react well to change and some individuals have even reportedly felt ‘weak’ for wearing a mask because they are conforming to rules being imposed on them. A different way to look at it is masks are a symbol of solidarity, of us all working together, and could be interpreted as a symbol of our strength in 2020.
  3. Mixed messages – Put out about masks from the WHO and the government during the start of the pandemic which suggested that they were unnecessary have most likely made wearing masks harder for some people to be on board with. Masks have also caused conflict between strangers as many of us feel suspicious and unsafe around those not wearing a mask, sometimes leading to confrontation.
  4. Masks hide our identity – According to some, but we can also see them as an extension of our personalities and can be used to share individuality through their design, colour and even shape!
  5. Feeling self-conscious – A survey conducted by Imperial College London in June found that there were several other reasons for why people were put off wearing masks. For example, 52% said they felt self-conscious and 47% said they felt embarrassed, but it would be interesting to research now those numbers again a few months on as we have become more accustomed to them.

How to approach wearing masks and how you can change your employees psychology

  1. Educate – Understanding is key. Keep the messaging clear, consistent and concise. Be clear about what is law, policy or guidelines and stick to it. Make sure you are setting the right example yourself to those you hope to influence positively.
  2. Offer tips – One way to diminish the feeling of anxiety associated with miscommunications when wearing masks is to try to take a good humoured and relaxed approach. Accept that you may misinterpret and make mistakes or ask for things to be repeated several times. It’s ok, everyone is in the same boat.
  1. Time – It will take time for society to get use to this. With time, more and more people will accept wearing masks. This is known as crowd behaviour which is when several people in a ‘tribe’ (close circle) perform an action that then slowly influences the rest of the group to follow suit.

By Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist,