Seeing masked people can activate pre-existing fear of coronavirus infection. A more positive image for masks could remedy the situation.
Many people are at their wits’ end: for two years now, the novel coronavirus has been turning the world upside down. You can’t really plan anything anymore. You have to constantly check the rules. And you have to do something that was completely alien two years ago: wear a protective facemask on the bus, in shops or when entering a restaurant.
Many people see the point of masks. One might therefore assume that people who are anxious about Covid feel some inhibitions when interacting with unmasked individuals.
"But precisely these people may go into an avoidance mode when they see a mask, specifically if it is perceived as a reminder of the risk of infection," explains Dr Anand Krishna, a psychologist from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany.
Mask as a symbol can trigger fears
This means that the mask itself, as a symbol, does something to people’s minds. For quite a few, it spontaneously evokes fears of Covid.
This was found in an international study with 147 participants aged between 18 and 35 and 150 participants aged 60 and over. A large part of the respondents came from Great Britain, the rest from numerous countries in Europe as well as from Australia, Canada and Chile. The study team led by Krishna published the results in the journal Cognitive Research.
Young people are more cautious
Another result of the Würzburg study: younger people are more cautious than older people. This could be due to the fact that they consume more media, Krishna suspects.
"The fear of Covid-19 is primarily conveyed by the media," says the JMU psychologist. For example, by constantly presenting the mortality rates. Older people may spend less time reading up on the latest Corona news in the media. It might also be assumed that senior citizens tend to be more optimistic.
Presenting masks more positively
Policymakers are trying to convince people who are hesitant about masks of their usefulness as a protective measure. According to Krishna, they should focus on reducing the dread of masks for people with Covid 19 anxiety as they do so.
In many cities these days, you can read signs: "Safety through distance". Similarly, according to the JMU scientist, it could be propagated: "Safety through masks". In his opinion, the idea that masks promise safety should be communicated more publicly.
Krishna, A., Rodrigues, J., Mitschke, V. et al. Self-reported mask-related worrying reduces relative avoidance bias towards unmasked faces in individuals with low Covid19 anxiety syndrome. Cognitive Research 6, 75 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-021-00344-8
Dr Anand Krishna, Institute of Psychology, University of Würzburg, T +49 931 31-86674, firstname.lastname@example.org
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