As I was planting bulbs in my garden last week, an elderly neighbor came over to talk to me. We’re both fully vaccinated, but I wasn’t masked and she was. So I spent a few awkward moments digging in my pocket for a bandana, which I used to cover my face while we chatted casually. According to the state guidelines in Massachusetts, where I live, we didn’t need to be masked in this setting, but I chose to do so anyway to make her feel more comfortable.
As the pandemic wanes in the United States and President Biden himself encourages the fully vaccinated to go maskless, Americans are still unsure of whether to wear a mask in public. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the science suggests that it is safe for the vaccinated to go unmasked in most outdoor and indoor settings. But many people continue wearing masks. Why? One big reason is that they are culturally primed to do so.
This is the main finding from newly published research by a team of MIT scholars. The researchers did four large-scale studies of hundreds of thousands of people across all 3,141 counties in the United States and across 67 countries during the pandemic. They found that mask wearing was higher in “collectivistic” regions of the United States and the world, where people tend to be concerned with the needs, goals, and interests of the group rather than the individual. Mask wearing was lower in regions where people tend to care about their own needs over those of the group. “It’s important to understand how culture fundamentally shapes how people respond not only to this pandemic, but to future crises as well,” says Jackson G. Lu, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, who led the study.
Psychologists have studied the distinction between individual and collectivist cultures for decades. Researchers have developed an index to track where a region fits within this spectrum by analyzing many factors, including the ratio of people who carpool to those who drive alone, the percentage of elderly people living alone, and how many people have no religious affiliation. In the United States, the most collectivistic states include Hawaii, California, and Maryland, and this study showed that mask usage was highest in these areas. The most individualistic states include Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, and mask usage was correspondingly lower there.
Scholars believe that these cultural tendencies are related to the history and landscapes of these regions: The Great Plains are still sparsely populated, so people tend to be more self-reliant and individualistic, whereas New England, with its religious Puritanical roots, tends to be more collectivist. Hawaii leans more collectivist because 62% of the population immigrated from Asian countries, which tend to have more collectivist cultures.
When you look at the world, a similar dynamic played out, according to the studies. Mask usage was high in collectivist countries such as South Korea and Thailand, but it was low in individualistic countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. “The most striking thing for me was how consistent our findings are,” Lu says, pointing out that in the highly collectivistic state of Hawaii people wore masks throughout the pandemic, even though cases were never really very high there.
One way people project that they care about others’ health is to wear a mask. In some communities where the norm is to wear a mask, people might be afraid that others will perceive them as uncaring if they don’t wear one. The researchers explain that in collectivistic places, wearing a mask conveys a message that you understand how interdependent we are with one another; it is a symbol of solidarity, signaling that we are fighting the pandemic together. In individualistic places, refusing to wear a mask is a way for people to show that they value personal choice and freedom. This was evident in anti-mask protests last August, where people held signs that read, “Masks are muzzles.”
Of course, culture is not the only factor that determines whether people wear masks. Mask usage tends to be higher among people who are educated, wealthier, and Democratic. Globally, mask usage tends to be higher in countries that more stringently enforce mask mandates. But mask wearing has also stayed relatively consistent from one region to the next, even as the science of mask wearing has shifted, which suggests that culture does play a significant role.
“Science is just part of the story,” says Shinobu Kitayama, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who specializes in cultural differences. He points out that after the SARS outbreak, many people in Asian countries began wearing masks regularly during flu season and when they had a cold. There wasn’t much data suggesting that mask wearing was effective in curbing the spread of disease at the time. But Kitayama argues that people wanted to signal that they care about the health of the community and may also have felt personally shielded by the mask.
So what’s next? As the pandemic slowly recedes in the United States, will people in more collectivist places continue to wear masks? This is already happening. Several journalists have spoken to people across the country who plan to continue wearing masks, possibly forever, because they like feeling as though they are protecting themselves and others from potential illness.
There’s also a chance that regions of the United States will mimic Asian countries, with people masking up when they have a cold to protect other people from harm. “In many pro-social Asian countries like Japan, where people can afford masks, there’s the expectation that you should wear a mask when you have a cold to protect other people,” Lu says. “I think it’s entirely possible that in highly collectivist states in the U.S., like Hawaii, many people may still continue to wear masks long after the CDC lifts mask mandates.”
Kitayama isn’t so sure if masking will continue in the United States. He points out that there are many cultural differences between the United States and Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore, where mask wearing is common in nonpandemic times. For one thing, Americans like communicating with their whole faces, and masks get in the way of showing important signals of social bonding, like smiling. “I question how long Americans can endure wearing a mask, without compromising their ability to open up the self in daily social interactions,” Kitayama says. “Facial expressions are also a way for Americans to show decency and kindness.”