What’s behind mask wearing rejectionism: Individualism vs collectivism

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Credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Rule-breaking is not a new phenomenon, but behavioural scientists say it is being exacerbated in the coronavirus pandemic by cultural, demographic and psychological factors that can make the flouters seem more selfish and dangerous.

Here are some questions and answers on the science of human behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic:

What makes some people flout and others obey the rules?

A key factor is individualism versus collectivism.

“Some countries…tend to be higher on individualism, which is about expressing your sense of identity and who you are as an individual,” said Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University.

People in individualist cultures tend to reject rules and ignore attempts by public health authorities to “nudge” behaviour change with risk messages or appeals for altruism.

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“If you say, for example, that wearing a mask will help protect others, people in individualistic cultures just care less,” said Michael Sanders, a expert at the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

In collectivist cultures, people are more likely to do what’s best for the group.

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Are trust and fear important?

Yes. These and other instincts are significant influences on human behaviour.

In societies with more political division, for example, people are less likely to trust advice from one side or the other, and also tend to form pro- and anti-camps.

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