The Psychology of Masks
There was a revealing moment at the press conference where the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced that masks were to be made compulsory on public transport and in some indoor settings such as shops, cinemas and churches. She admitted that the main reason for doing was ‘to give business confidence’. In other words this was nothing to do with ‘the science’ but was psychological. It was also political – the pressure from the Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC and the general chattering classes was becoming way too intense. Daily we are bombarded with sensationalist headlines (‘Cases soar in Sydney’ – on a day when there were seven new cases in the whole of NSW), and simplistic solutions – if we all wear masks then we will stop Covid. This is our way to control it. One ‘expert’ cited in the SMH solemnly pronounced that masks would result in 30% less Covid cases in Sydney. He of course does not know that – he was just making it up. But it is treated as holy writ by journalists and politicians desperate for bad news and simple answers. It is Bidenesque in its folly – “if everyone wore masks we would save 100,000 lives by Christmas’. It’s little wonder that Gladys caved and now we all have to wear masks.
I wrote this letter to the Premier –
I doubt you will read this but I wanted to say that whilst I have been greatly impressed with your leadership in the Covid crisis the announcement about facemasks was deeply disappointing. You admitted that the reason for doing this was ‘to give business confidence’. In other words it is psychological not science. The WHO report on Facemasks issued on the 1st of December 2020 admitted that there was little scientific evidence that masks prevented community transmission. My fear is that you have given into political pressure rather than do what you have been doing so well so far – following the scientific evidence.
I am not opposed to wearing masks (indeed I do so when I am in a crowded situation). But I do object to government mandates based upon politics and psychology rather than science. I also find that there is an adverse psychological effect – firstly it seems to give many people a false confidence so that they avoid social distancing. Secondly it instills fear, suspicion and hostility. I for one will avoid as far as possible public transport, will avoid going to shops and avoid going to any venue where I have to wear a mask (except church). I suspect that your reason for doing this (that it will give business confidence) will turn out to be the exact opposite. Complusory masks do not inspire confidence and I believe will only discourage the economy.
I will not now be going to the Sydney Cricket Ground. This is a very dispiriting and discouraging announcement. It certainly gives the impression that, like the other Premiers, you have lost your nerve and given into the Sydney Morning Herald test, rather than the scientific evidence.
In that regard I am also confused as to why I am permitted to go to the SCG with 20,000 other people for a whole day to watch cricket, but am not permitted to go with any more than 100 people to worship at my church? What is the scientific reason for that anamoly? It appears that policy is being made on economic and political grounds – rather than rational scientific ones.
I hope that by the time you get this – these policies will have been reversed and you will have gone back to your more balanced and sensible leadership.
I’ve already written about the reasons for and against wearing masks and I’m not going to repeat that here -but what I am interested in is the psychology – the way that we think and why we think that way. I think there is some interesting, and somewhat disturbing, thinking (or to be more accurate ‘feeling’ ) concerning the wearing of masks.
The psychology of masks is all about control, confidence, compassion, and condemnation.
There is no doubt that mask wearing is seen as the necessary cure all and our way to defeat the disease. The big cry is that we need to be able to ‘control’ this. We must be able to control it. But what if we can’t? At least not without doing considerable and perhaps greater harm elsewhere?
Gladys admitted that this was the main reason for making masks mandatory – because it gives people confidence – but does it? And is that confidence a false confidence? There is no evidence that masks prevent you getting Covid – and the evidence that they prevent you giving Covid is somewhat limited. Why is it that countries which have compulsory masks are also those that have the largest number of cases? I am not arguing that correlation is causation, but if masks were so effective that they were going to end the pandemic why is that not happening in areas where masks are mandatory? Take for example California – which is in a state of near collapse. https://www.politico.com/amp/news/2020/12/23/california-covid-surge-450315?__twitter_impression=true
Or Germany – which was the poster boy for mask wearing – its low level of cases in June was put down to a large degree to the mask effect (the figure listed was 40%) – now Germany has had an enormous surge and is also in lockdown – despite masks.
What if the ‘confidence’ instilled by masks ends up being a cause for Covid spreading – as people think they are safe and so avoid proven methods like social distancing and hand washing? Is it verboten even to ask such questions?
A reason for wearing masks is that we want to show compassion – to show that we care. This is commendable and is a good reason for wearing masks. It is considerate to bear in mind other people. But I am not convinced that compassion is the major driving force behind those who are making these decisions. It’s been so depressing to see family, friends and church being forced into lockdown yet again back in the UK (despite masks being compulsory!) because Boris and Nicola have to be seen to be doing something. Has Premier Dan Andrews in Victoria insisted that all office workers should have masks on indoors at all times because that’s what the science says – or because it shows that he’s still in charge? It’s easy for politicians and public servants to demand yet more restrictions – because they are not the ones who will lose their secure jobs, healthcare and lifestyles. Of course wearing a mask is a relatively small imposition – but it is a sign.
There are many people who have examined the question and are much more certain about the efficacy and importance of masks than I am. They may well be right and I would love to see their evidence. I genuinely just don’t know. My concern is with those who havn’t really thought about it and yet just accept the mantras they are fed. Having the ‘right’ opinion on masks is so easy. It allows you to be on the side of the angels and to have free rein to condemn those who don’t share your opinion. And it costs you virtually nothing to be so virtuous.
It’s depressing the level of abuse that gets hurled at anyone who dares question the herd mentality. (that is one of the reasons why I have not written about this for any of the publications I normally write for – its not worth them getting the abuse!). For example this is the kind of tweet you can expect if you dare to ask for evidence that masks actually are effective in preventing the spread of Covid – “Yeah I guess all those doctors and surgeons wearing them for all that time know nothing. Dumbass”. This mob mentality is hyped up by much of the media. Yesterday I heard the BBC world service encouraging people to be busybodies and insist on telling those without masks to get them on – because as they said ‘masking is the solution’. I also have to say that abuse comes from the other extreme as well. I have been called a ‘coward’ for disagreeing with the government mandate but still going along with it. It’s disappointing that people don’t seem to understand that there can be lots of laws you don’t agree with, which you go along with. This is not to say that you always do so – but that is only when they are important decrees which specifically go against the Word of God – wearing masks does not fall into that category!
We are told by the politicians that when we go out we should behave as though we have Covid – but we are then told that if we have Covid we shouldn’t go out at all. We are told that it is not safe to pass through a shop without a mask, but it is safe to sit in a café for hours without one. It is not safe to have more than 100 people worship God in church but it is fine to have 20,000 go to the cricket.
As I already indicated in my previous article – I am not opposed to masks (but would still like to see the peer reviewed evidence) and will obey the law. It makes sense to me to wear them in an environment where conditions are crowded, social distancing is impossible, and where there is significant community transmission. But governments insisting that we should wear them for psychological, economic and political reasons is a big mistake. One that will cause far more harm than good. We are heading down a dangerous route…
PS. I found this discussion interesting in bringing up many of the main issues – although I don’t agree with everything! Brendan O’Neill and Julia Hartley-Brewer.