New Social Psychology Research on the Topic of Face Masks

I invite you to review an interesting new research study on wearing face masks during the Coronavirus epidemic. This was written by my colleague in Prague, Czech Republic.

A case study of collective resilience, “an altruistic defence” against COVID:

The Czech face-mask campaign

When Coronavirus hit the Czech Republic, the national Crisis Committee issued an order for all citizens to compulsorily wear face-masks in the public (or improvised covers) without providing them to citizens. As in other countries, there was a shortage of masks and respirators even for first line defenders, moreover, wearing face-masks was never a Czech cultural tradition. Yet, amazingly, almost overnight, all citizens had their noses and mouths covered, mostly with hand-sewn masks (“roušky”).

It is well-known that cotton fabric is permeable to virus, giving little protection to its wearer. However, even simple masks are instrumental in limiting the spread of saliva from an infected person, most infectious before first symptoms appear. The "my face-mask protects you, yours protects me" altruistic logic is a base for an effective collective self-defense.

Psychological costs and benefits. Mask wearing (not without medical controversy) limits interpersonal communication and emotionally distances the wearers. However, multiple positive psychological effects include: solidarity, courtesy to others, and responsibility which are demonstrated by mask wearing. Masks are constant reminders of the emergency situation. They give everyone some feeling of safety, last but not least, an opportunity to take charge in an active defence against viruses.

Empirical part. A Czech national representative sample (N=1019) was surveyed online in April 2020; 91.2% reported they owned a handmade face-mask; of which 45% were sewn by a relative, 35% by a friend or friend’s family, 28% respondents made their mask themselves, just 17% were made by strangers. Almost 10% respondents provided masks to strangers, often for free; 27,8% were engaged in some other corona-related voluntary work (mostly shopping for seniors and donations).

Qualitative analysis. Face-masks symbolized to respondents a variety of concepts, emotions and opinions. From associations (“safety,” “sucks!” “protection of others,” “dog muzzle,” “fashion accessory”), the popular slogan: „mine protects you, yours me, ” black humour, as well as acute political statements, such as “pride in the Czech nation about which the politicians could not care less” or “a Communist dream: a plugged mouth and assembly ban.” All 1066 responses were subjected to content analysis with a focus on emotional and cognitive aspects, results of which are presented in detail.

Quantitative analysis. The survey contained additional psychological variables, e.g., Big Five personality, Haidt Foundations of Morality items, questions on democratic spirit, resilience, and societal anxiety, besides demographic data. Results focus on personality and demographic profiles of the mask makers and analyses of relationships among helping behaviour, civic culture, and coping with adversity.

Conclusion: The hand sewn face-masks became not just a symbol of the corona epidemic and strict restrictions. They became also a symbol of resourcefulness and mutual help both by the truly altruistic merit of their use and by the process of their improvised creation. A direct opposition of an alternative strategy when elsewhere at the time of crisis citizens lined up to buy guns. The meaning of civic “altruistic defence” is that if I care for you and you care for me, all will be better off.

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