It is clear from mainstream media headlines in both the UK and US that some commentators are determined to frame attitudes towards mask-wearing during the pandemic as part of a broader, highly politicised culture war. 

It has become a divisive symbol of two incompatible world views - one right, the other wrong. In doing so, refusing to wear a mask is associated with certain attributes and values such as freedom of expression and personal liberty. But while making mask-wearing being part of a culture war may serve the interests of some, it may also have serious public health consequences.

Many countries across the world have made mask-wearing compulsory in designated settings, either through national legislation or, as in the US, on a state-by-state basis.

Following numerous studies, health authorities believe that wearing masks provides a useful degree of protection against the spread of COVID-19, both for mask-wearers and particularly for those who come into close contact with infected people. How much protection depends on a range of factors such as the type of mask, amount of virus present, and the setting.

If masks are beneficial, then the more people complying with these mask mandates, the greater the collective health benefit. Furthermore, there is a broader social and economic dimension, as the effectiveness of the public heath response to the pandemic directly affects the social and economic wellbeing of countries.

In some countries like the US, however, there are relatively high levels of non-compliance with mask-wearing requirements. Prompted by debate in the US around mask-wearing, together with a number of academics at Nanyang Technological University, we set out to get a better idea of why people refuse to wear masks.

In particular, we wanted to investigate if mask-wearers are inherently more prosocial - more concerned about others and less selfish than non-mask wearers, as is often suggested - and therefore whether mask-wearing behaviour is associated with a willingness to co-operate more generally.

To do this we organised more than 600 people from the US to participate in our study and play a series of Prisoner's Dilemma-type games in pairs, which tested their willingness to co-operate under different conditions when real money is at stake.

Initially, participants were not told about the mask-wearing preference of their opponent (we used neutral terms like 'participant' and 'player' in the study), and there was no significant difference in the willingness of mask-wearers or non-mask wearers to co-operate.

People who preferred to wear masks were not inherently more or less co-operative than non-mask wearers. An additional test also showed that participants did not have strong preconceived notions about how mask-wearing should affect co-operative behaviour.

However, when participants were told about the mask-wearing preferences of their opponent the outcome was markedly different. Mask-wearers were much more likely to co-operate with other mask-wearers, as were non-mask wearers with non-mask wearers. Equally, mask-wearers were less likely to co-operate with non-mask wearers and vice versa.

This effect remained even when controlling for a range of other factors, including gender, age, ethnicity, political affiliation, education, and household income. There was a very strong in-group/out-group identity effect based on mask-wearing preferences.

We also checked whether political views – whether someone was a Republican or Democrat voter – might account for this effect. It is true that Democrats were more likely to be mask-wearers (98 per cent) than Republicans (84 per cent). It was also the case that Democrats were more concerned about the COVID situation and more likely to believe that mask-wearing was a public health responsibility, ie the 'right thing to do', and an effective anti-COVID-19 measure, than Republicans.

Why are some people anti masks?

However, if political affiliation was a major factor, non-mask wearing Democrats and mask-wearing Republicans in the study might have been expected to co-operate more willingly with mask-wearers and non-mask wearers respectively. Yet the findings did not support this. Instead, the in-group/out-group mask-wearing effect was still strong, but just not as strong. In other words, political identity might explain some of the mask-related attitude towards co-operation, but not all.

Instead, the research suggests that social identity can be derived from the visible symbol of the mask itself. There is a strong sense of us-versus-them between mask-wearers and non-mask wearers that extends to the willingness to co-operate.

It is a finding supported by other research on identity and in-group, out-group bias. Interestingly, other studies have not found similar effects with vaccination versus non-vaccination. But this is likely to be because mask-wearing is highly visible unlike vaccination. If a publicly visible sign of having been vaccinated was introduced then similar effects might be expected.

The findings have important implications for both public health policy and for social order, divisions within society, and the culture wars. If the aim, for example, is to improve compliance on mandated mask-wearing, and non-mask wearers are much less likely to co-operate with mask-wearers, then appeals to wear masks from pro-mask wearers are unlikely to make much difference.

A more complex but equally problematic situation arises when policy shifts from making mask-wearing compulsory in certain circumstances, such as on public transport, to recommending mask-wearing (on public health grounds). This approach, providing freedom of choice, while at the same time recommending a course of action and relying on people's 'good sense' or propensity to 'do the right thing',  is less likely to achieve the desired outcome.

Instead, this creates the conditions for an 'us-versus-them' situation to arise. Where once it was compulsory and nearly everybody wore a mask, now, as they exercise choice, more people will decide not to wear a mask. This is particularly likely if the behaviour, mask-wearing in this case, is not the social norm as in the US and UK (unlike much of Asia).

Thus, people are divided into mask-wearers and non-mask wearers, the group effect is amplified, and overall co-operation with recommended guidance declines. The strength of the in-group effect is such that people will even take action that is not in their own interest to avoid being disloyal to the group they identify with.

So the approach of recommending behaviour has dual drawbacks. It undermines optimal public health policy, especially when a behaviour is designed to protect others rather than just the individual exhibiting the behaviour, as it is unlikely to obtain the same degree of compliance as compulsion. And it also creates divisions in society based on identity, limiting co-operation overall. A lose-lose situation.

Furthermore, the choice of non-mask wearing can be co-opted by influencers of public opinion, whether that is politicians, the media, or others, and assigned a particular meaning. This has happened in the US and UK, for example, where non-masking has been portrayed as an expression of freedom of choice and personal liberty versus inappropriate government authority and control, and framed as part of a culture war. Further exacerbating the in-group/out-group effect.

It is better, perhaps, for situations where governments believe that mask-wearing is preferred on the grounds of public health benefits, to mandate mask-wearing rather than recommend it. But in addition, to recognise that those who prefer not to wear a mask are less likely to pay attention to the message than the person delivering the message. Rather than using pro-mask wearing, politically affiliated individuals, depoliticise the public message by using 'neutral' non-mask wearing scientists to explain the scientific benefits. Getting non-mask wearers to explain why they are changing behaviour to mask-wearing may also be effective.

This is an approach that has the benefit of increasing compliance overall and, to some extent at least, deactivating masks as the weapon of choice in the culture wars.

Further reading:

Powdthavee, N., Riyanto, Y. E., Wong, E. C., Yeo, J. X. and Chan, Q. Y. (2021) "When face masks signal social identity : explaining the deep face-mask divide during the COVID-19 pandemic", PLoS One.

Brodeur, A., Clark, A. E., Fleche, S. and Powdthavee, N. (2021) "COVID-19, lockdowns and well-being : evidence from Google trends", Journal of Public Economics.

Luckman, A., Zeitoun, H., Isoni, A., Loomes, G., Vlaev, I., Powdthavee, N. and Read, D. (2021) "Risk compensation during COVID-19 : the impact of face mask usage on social distancing", Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied

Nick Powdthavee is Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School. He teaches the Economics of Wellbeing on the Distance Learning MBA and on the Undergraduate programme.

Follow Nick Powdthavee on Twitter @NickPowdthavee.

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