COVID-19: Why Some Refuse to Stay Home or Wear Masks

Consumer psychology can explain some resistance to pandemic policies

May 13, 2020
Behavioral Science, Leadership


Why are some people ignoring pleas from health and government officials to wear face masks, give others a six-foot buffer and stay home unless absolutely essential?

It could be as simple as the words those officials are using, said Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

About a third of people have the tendency to react defiantly when they feel their freedom is threatened, research by Fitzsimons and others has shown. However, their experiments have also shown small changes in how officials communicate these guidelines could prevent this type of reaction.

This would mean shifting away from mandatory rules and suggesting people opt-in to steps to protect loved ones and neighbors, Fitzsimons explained in a question-and-answer session on LinkedIn (see video above). He also outlined the theory in an opinion piece that explains his research and possible remedies. 

In his LinkedIn talk, Fitzsimons recounted a number of well publicized, negative reactions to COVID-19 guidance to wear masks in public and avoid public gatherings 

“We know churches have been holding services in defiance of state and local rules,” he said. “Tragically, a security guard was shot and killed because he asked a customer to wear a face mask in the store in compliance with the store's rules. We've seen armed demonstrations around the country to protest stay-at-home orders.”

This may be because, as his research has demonstrated, when our access to something is restricted, it becomes much more appealing to us.

In one experiment, consumers were asked to select a granola bar, but not to select one of the choices. The rate at which consumers chose that granola bar went up about 40% when they were told to avoid it, Fitzsimons said.

“Some people have this tendency to backlash to recommendations or to restrictions at higher levels than others,” Fitzsimons said. “We find it most pronounced, not surprisingly, amongst teenagers. Teenagers backlash to threats to their freedom very dramatically. Men tend to show it a little more strongly than women, younger people more than older people.”

There are instances where this resistance can be a rational response, and at other times it may be counterproductive, he said.

“With a small shift in how those recommendations are conveyed to us, behavioral science suggests that America can get through this crisis while minimizing the negative consequences that might come from the completely natural reaction that folks have to their freedoms feeling threatened,” he added.

Fitzsimons is also part of a big data project gathering sentiment about the virus worldwide. Among the goals: to see whether changes in sentiment and behavior, such as people getting frustrated with restrictions, could presage changes in their compliance and consequently, an outbreak.

He says he would not encourage individuals to approach others in public who aren’t following safety guidelines to try to persuade them.

“That person's not wearing a mask already because they've decided that freedom is really important to them,” he said. “If you threaten it even more, it's going to heighten their reaction … again, the potential for negative outcomes is substantial.”

Instead, he suggests people consider opportunities to communicate with their bigger networks and communities in ways that increase the chances people will cooperate.

“Each of us has the opportunity to have a big impact on the world around us,” Fitzsimons said. “Maybe on a macro level if you're running an organization or a government agency. But all of us have the opportunity to have an impact on a micro level with our friends and loved ones.”

This story may not be republished without permission from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Please contact for additional information.

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