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Why won't some people wear face masks during a pandemic? It's complicated

Their reasons are many, but why do those who won't wear face masks in public during a pandemic refuse to do so?

AUSTIN, Texas — The message from health officials and more recently Gov. Abbott seems simple enough – wear a mask in public to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

But for some, it hasn’t been convincing. A number of Texans – and their counterparts nationwide – have refused to wear face coverings.

News reports have captured a number of rallies and protests against the masks. Excuses seem to vary. Some say they don’t want the government to tell them what to do, or that orders to wear masks violate their personal freedom. Others complain of breathing problems with the masks. Still others don’t believe the masks prevent infections.

Although they get a lot of media attention, non-mask wearers are in the minority. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center on shoppers explored how many Americans do – or don’t – wear masks. They found about 65% of adults said they regularly wear masks in public. Fifteen percent said they wear them some of the time, while most of the remaining 20% of respondents to the survey said they don’t wear masks at all.

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Austin psychologist Dr. Frances Douglas believes conflicting reports by health officials early on about whether masks would help prevent the virus from spreading likely caused some confusion on the part of some Americans. 

But now, she said, the messages from researchers and from Gov. Abbott on Thursday are similar in nature – wearing a face mask in public can help control the spread of the coronavirus.

“The messages are more unified now,” she said. “From the national government to Gov. Abbott’s face mask order, people are realizing that this is very serious. We need to act or a lot of people are going to get sick and some people are going to die.”

Dr. Douglas, who is president-elect of the Texas Psychological Association, notes that women are more likley to wear masks in public than men.

“Could that be because men are less likely to think they’re going to catch it? Is it because men are more inclined to take risks? We see that in other ways as men tend to drive faster and engage in more risky behaviors than women do,” she said.

She said a number of psychology research projects are underway that will tell us more about how people are reacting to the pandemic.

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