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Why are some more willing than others to wear face masks?

Man in mask at the store
Collectivism was a primary reason for mask wearing a recent MIT study found. (Source: Adobe Stock)

In the U.S., political party affiliation is a partial predictor of whether or not an adult has been likely to wear a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Democrats more likely to wear masks than Republicans – but it is not the most important factor, according to recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their study showed that a public sense of “collectivism” – generally defined as the inclination to prioritize a group’s needs and concerns over individual ones – in a particular state was the strongest predictor of mask-wearing. This factor appeared to outweight a community’s overall political climate, official state policies concerning wearing masks, and even the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks, the research found.

The MIT scientists analyzed several different sets of survey data collected between April and September of 2020, which included information from Americans in all 50 U.S. states and residents of all 3,141 counties. They found collectivism to be the strongest and most consistent predictor of mask-wearing, regardless of differences among other factors.

Hawaii, for example, which had the highest statewide rating in the U.S. for collectivism with a “collectivism score” of 91 out of 100, reported the second-highest statewide level of mask usage in the nation. On the other hand, several states in the central and western U.S., including Kansas, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, had both low collectivism ratings and low levels of mask-wearing. In Missouri, which received a collectivism score of 46, the average level of mask-wearing in public places was reported at 2.57, with 0 meaning survey respondents “never” wore a mask and 4 meaning “always.”

“In collectivistic cultures, people consider wearing masks not only a responsibility or duty, but also, a symbol of solidarity – that we’re standing together and fighting this pandemic together,” said Jackson G. Lu, an assistant professor at MIT and study co-author. 

The results recently appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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