Category: Psychology

COVID-19 — Facemasks and Psychologists

During the course of the current COVID-19 pandemic, facemask wearing has become a point of massive contention with many authorities insisting on their use by people in public places and even issuing fines for people caught not doing so. In some cases this has led to ugly and often unnecessarily violent confrontations between members of the public and sometimes with police.

Meanwhile, the science on the issue has seemed to shift so that at one time people in positions of authority were saying they were unnecessary and even inappropriate for general public to use and then the same authorities shifting to recommending them and even making them mandatory by all.

In this connection, a section of recent ABC News article dated 9 September entitled “Majority of Australians support mandatory face masks in public places, survey reveals” caught my eye: 

Masks ‘not yet ingrained’

Dominika Kwasnicka, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Melbourne, said mask-wearing is not yet a “social norm” in Australia.

“It’s definitely not yet ingrained in our culture,” she said.

“It’s very difficult to break [social norms], but we are very successful with changing and breaking them.”

But with time, she added, a change in attitudes may come.

“We can see in our history, for instance when we started encouraging people to wear seatbelts,” Dr Kwasnicka said.

“People didn’t consider them necessary, didn’t consider them as something that would save their lives. But with time we made them compulsory.

“I’m very confident that we can also change social norms when it comes to wearing a mask, but it’s going to take time.”

This raises some concerns about the role of a psychology professional in the support of facemask wearing practices being promoted by many authorities as the “new normal”. In particular, the apparently enthusiastic and uncritical acceptance of the very doubtful proposition that facemasks are an effective and appropriate infection control measure for an airborne influenza like virus (such as we are currently informed is the case with the COVID-19 pandemic). This is compounded by the implication of use of the interviewee’s professional and academic capabilities to support population behaviour modification activities that promote what many critics of the measure perceive to be a scientifically unsupported and physiologically and psychologically damaging practice i.e. the normalised and habitual facemask wearing by the healthy general public.

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