Why are face masks so controversial amid a pandemic? Duke researchers weigh-in

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- State health officials have been calling on North Carolinians for months to wear face masks in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Despite it being the law to do so now, many people still refuse and Duke University researchers think they know why.

"Many people perceive that some of the public health guidelines are direct threats to their freedoms and as a result, this motivational state kicks in where they'll go to great lengths to not follow those guidelines," said Dr. Gavan Fitzsimons, marketing and psychology professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

During a virtual panel discussion Wednesday, Fitzsimons, along with Dr. Benjamin Anderson and Dr. Lavanya Vasudevan addressed ways to overcome the resistance to mask-wearing and other public health measures during the pandemic.

Nearly a month after mandating face masks statewide, Gov. Roy Cooper said in a briefing Tuesday that refusing to wear a mask is "selfish."
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Gov. Roy Cooper gives update on COVID-19 response. Cooper says refusal to wear a mask in public is "selfish."

Fitzsimons said while the governor's intentions were good, that approach likely won't be effective.

"I don't like to describe people that choose not to wear a mask as selfish," he said. "I understand, psychologically, why they're doing it. They're doing it because you're threatening their freedom- we're threatening their freedom. So using the term selfish is going to lead them to dig in even harder."

Researchers said politicizing mask-wearing early on only exacerbated this backlash response, but they're hopeful, with Pres. Trump's recent pivot on the issue, referring Tuesday to mask-wearing as "patriotic," will help.

"As long as there is now a consistent, repeated message, both verbal and physical- wearing an actual mask and letting people see it's important to wear a mask in public, as long as that's repeated over and over in coming months, it'll start to shift," Fitzsimons said.

Dr. Vasudevan said it's important to get the messaging right, right now.

"A vaccine is our best shot for ending this COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "We can spend billions of dollars developing an effective vaccine but if people don't think it's important, they're not going to accept it."

While no one wants to be told what to do, the experts agree we all like to feel we have choice and that we're helping to solve the problem.

"Not just from the public health community, but also the community as a whole- if we can lead with a little bit more empathy and try to come alongside people and meet them where they are, I think that's a message all of us could hear," Anderson said.
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