It's an issue that has divided the country: wearing masks during COVID-19.
As the world grapples to come to terms with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of mask wearing across the United States and around the world is highly variable.
Now a study from MIT has found that a public feeling of “collectivism” predicts whether or not mask use is common.
“Collectivism captures ‘the tendency to be more concerned with the group’s needs, goals, and interests than with individualistic-oriented interests,’ whereas individualism captures ‘the tendency to be more concerned with one’s own needs, goals, and interests than with group-oriented concerns,” Jackson G. Lu, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management told Theravive.
“Since its outbreak, COVID-19 has impacted world regions differentially. Whereas some regions still record tens of thousands of new infections daily, other regions have contained the virus. What explains these striking regional differences?”
To determine what influences public attitudes towards mask wearing, Lu and colleagues analysed four sets of data.
The first set was collected in July 2020 and involved a survey containing a single question about wearing masks in the United States. More than 248 thousand Americans in 3141 counties responded to the survey.
The second set of data about mask wearing was from April to September 2020 and had responses more than 16 thousand Americans in all 50 states.
The researchers examined the data to see whether mask wearing had a strong correlation with the concept of collectivism in the United States.
In psychology, cultural dimensions can be explained as collectivism or individualism. Collectivism focuses on the needs of a group, whereas individualism tends to focus on the needs of the individual.
After controlling for other factors like severity of COVID-19 outbreaks and population density, the researchers found that states with a strong sense of collectivism were more likely to wear masks.
Hawaii, the researchers say, has the highest rating for collectivism in the United States. Hawaii also ranks second in terms of levels of mask use (behind Rhode Island).
Elsewhere, like in states in the Great Plains or Mountain West, where collectivism scores are lower, there are lower levels of mask wearing. The researchers found this was the case in places like Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas and Montana.
This trend was seen in both sets of data.
As well as collectivism being a strong indicator for mask wearing, so too was political affiliation. The researchers found that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to wear masks.
To further the study, the researchers did the same analysis on two more sets of data from other countries.
The first set of data was from 2020 and had responses about mask wearing from 367, 109 people across 29 countries and territories.
The second was in collaboration with Facebook, and contained responses from more than 277 thousand people across 67 countries and territories.
The researchers found that in other countries, the same results could be found: a higher rate of collectivism was associated with higher level of mask wearing.
“Four large-scale studies provide evidence that collectivism (vs. individualism) positively predicts mask usage—both within the United States and across the world,” Yu said.
“Collectivism can help people stand together during a crisis. By examining how different cultures respond to the pandemic, our research highlights the importance of cultural psychology in the face of global disasters. Understanding cultural differences not only provides insight into the current pandemic, but also helps the world prepare for future crises,” he said.
Lu argues that understanding the cultural influences at play with mask wearing not only provides insight into public behavior during the pandemic, but will also help to better prepare for future pandemics.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.