Not Wearing a Mask and The Illusion of Control
The great mask debate will live on as one of the greatest misunderstandings of our time. Why can’t people wear a mask? It seems so simple because it doesn’t negatively affect the wearer and yet has a positive impact. It seems like the obvious, non-asshole thing to do, yet large swaths of people refuse to wear them. To get at the root of this, we need to dig beneath the surface.
So, let’s remove all of the misinformation about masks. We’ve all seen it. This misinformation persists even though many people wear masks for work all of the time, including doctors and surgeons. In an ironic twist, anti-maskers are more than happy to have the people preparing their food wear masks, yet, they don’t want to themselves.
In my observations, it’s been people using misinformation about masks to justify not wearing them, not people who don’t wear masks because of the misinformation. That’s a pretty big distinction. If it wasn’t the misinformation, then why do people not wear masks given the obvious benefits? It’s pretty simple, control.
Control is a fundamental need in humans. We crave it. Subconsciously, we do our best to control all kinds of things, whether our control affects the outcome or not. We crave control so much that we even chase the illusion of control. I believe that for most anti-maskers, It’s this illusion of control that people chase.
Doctor Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, studied nursing home patients in which there were two scenarios. I’m going to simplify here greatly, but both scenarios involved giving nursing home patients a plant. In one scenario, the plant was chosen for them, and its care was left to staff at the nursing home. In the other scenario, patients could choose the plant, and the plant's care was left to the patient. The results showed not only were the patients that got to choose happier, but they also lived longer.
Choosing a plant is the illusion of control. Patients were still in an environment where their daily activities, schedules, and movements were strictly controlled but were happier when they had the illusion of control. Plants and masks are similar this way, both providing an illusion of control.
Next time someone refuses to wear a mask and they tell you they won’t have their freedoms taken away by the government, understand that it’s because they feel they have control, even though it’s only an illusion. If it were only as simple as asking them what plant they wanted. Unfortunately, this won't change regardless of the amount of new information you present them. Only if they felt they were in mortal danger would their behavior change. It’s selfish, it’s stupid, and it’s hurting people. The only thing we can relatively take comfort in is that the pandemic isn’t more deadly than it is.