How to Really Change Minds Around Wearing Masks

Sarah K Stricker
6 min readJul 1, 2020
Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and its nearly unchecked spread in the United States, it’s understandably tempting to point fingers at people refusing to wear masks, social distance, and stay home, all measures we know work to curb virus spread. For those of us who are high risk, who are less likely to make it out the other side if the virus finds its way into our bodies, it can feel like a personal attack when people refuse to do their part. Shaming can be cathartic, and arguably warranted, but it’s also ineffective. As good as it feels to give side-eye to people you pass on the street who are absent a mask, it’s unlikely to change their behavior.

Forceful language that paints health behaviors as black and white tends to lead to resistance and reactance in those hearing the message. Reactance is a psychological pushback that occurs when people perceive their autonomy or freedom is being taken away. Even though wearing a mask in public is correct behavior in the face of a pandemic, backed by mountains of evidence, people who feel they are forced into changing their normal behavior are likely to resist. Even though mask-wearing is keeping them safe, and keeping the people they care about safe, they are likely to fight to restore their freedom not to wear a mask because they feel forced into the behavior.

I want to pause here and explicitly say that whether or not to wear a mask during a pandemic is a settled issue. It works. Same with maintaining social distancing. They are relatively small changes that people can make that will help enormously in flattening the spread of COVID-19. I don’t see those facts as debatable. But I’m focusing here on the messaging aspect of getting broader buy-in on wearing masks or staying six feet away from people on the street. To my mind, understanding the way people react to messaging they perceive as threatening matters here because the best chance we have at reducing the carnage of this pandemic depends on getting more people to stay home, social distance, and wear masks. Plenty of people are focusing on the moral issues around refusing to wear masks and the social factors that affect that choice. I believe that optimizing our messaging to change as many minds as possible at this moment is critical, even if it puts us in the uncomfortable position of trying to empathize with…

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Sarah K Stricker

Writing about disability, chronic illness, & mental health. MS in health communication from @NUHealthComm. Find my work in Invisible Illness & No End in Sight.