Breaking the mask habit: Why some people find it hard to let go

Photo of Jordan Fenster

Bailey Bruce runs a yoga studio. She’s still requiring her patrons to wear masks, at least “for the time being.”

“I wanted to wait a month after the mask mandate was lifted to see what happens,” she said, opting instead for “a very slow opening back to normal.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have said masks are no longer required if you are fully vaccinated, with some exceptions, but Bruce is not ready to make the shift. She said businesses and customers are in a transition period.

“You don't know what the right thing to do is right now,” she said.

Actually, Studio Grounded, Bruce’s yoga and fitness studio in North Haven, is running classes three ways: Outside with no masks, online and masked inside, which is still limited to nine spots.

“I never want to be responsible for someone getting sick,” she said. “If I made a decision that caused people to get sick, I don't know how I would live with that right now.”

There are, experts say, a few reasons why that shift from masks is not immediate, but rather a transition. As in Bruce’s case, anxiety is one of them.

“I think it's totally understandable that people have some anxiety still, and want to wear masks in certain settings,” said Sherry Pagoto, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Allied Health Sciences. “Some of that anxiety is actually quite healthy, because we do want to have some concern about our risk for disease. We don't want it to overtake our lives, but we also don't want to be blind to the risk.”

How to change a habit

There is no hard-and-fast rule but, according to Kiran McCloskey, it takes a median of about 60 days to build a habit.

“It depends on the behavior, how complex it is, how rewarding it is,” she said.

McCloskey, a UConn doctoral graduate, has researched the subject of habit alongside Blair T. Johnson, a professor in psychological sciences. McCloskey and Johnson said habit could be responsible, at least in part, for a person’s unwillingness to take off a mask despite the CDC’s recommendations.

“When we create a habit, we're essentially creating a link between a context and the response that you're going to have,” McCloskey said. “It just becomes this automatic link in your brain that when I'm in this context, I do this behavior.”

Johnson used the example of seat belts. “I'm old enough that I remember when those things came out,” he said.

At first, when seat belt mandates were new, people had to be convinced to use them. There were arguments using negative reinforcement — use a seat belt or get a ticket — and more positive incentives — seat belts save lives.

Modern cars remind you, often with an annoying noise, to put on your seat belt but, in many cases, it’s no longer necessary.

“It's a system in your brain that is recording how often you do something, how frequent it is,” Johnson said. “At some point, that reinforcement value probably doesn't matter much. It's just that your system has recognized that as a way to survive. That’s when you've had a true habit.”

Habits may be the result of conscious behavior, but they become habitual when the behavior is no longer conscious.

“It's really a set of primitive components of your brain that are mostly involved with habits,” Johnson said. “Those cues kind of come at you, ‘something's missing.’ “And it's not really a thought. It's more like a feeling.”

McCloskey and Johnson talk about habits like a physicist might talk about energy — habits, they said, can neither be created nor destroyed, but can and do shift and take different forms.

“The thing about habits is that they don't go away. You can replace them, you can establish new habits, but the old habits are still there,” Johnson said. “Your craving to engage in those kind of pops out when it's cued by a context.”

But now that the CDC has changed its rules and societal expectations have shifted, so will the habit of mask wearing.

“When contexts change, that's going to be a particular place to develop a new habit,” McCloskey said.

In some Asian countries, people are accustomed to wearing masks when they get ill, or in crowded situations like subways. As the context of mask-wearing shifts, so will the habits around them.

“Maybe around the world it will become a hygiene habit, like other habits that we do to protect ourselves from health risks, where maybe we wear a mask on planes all the time, or we wear a mask on buses, or like other places where it's very crowded,” Pagoto said.

Perception of reality

A Hearst Connecticut Media Group poll of readers, asking which Connecticut businesses continued to require masks returned complex results.

Eighteen of the 158 responses were regarding Stop & Shop, of which 10 said masks were still required and eight said masks were no longer required.

As of May 19, Stop & Shop no longer requires those who are fully vaccinated to wear masks in Connecticut stores, “although we will continue to strongly encourage everyone to do so,” a company spokesperson said.

But the differing understanding of the expectations come down to perception of reality.

“The question though, is how much of it is a habit for the actual mask wearing and how much is it a cognitive habit as well, like how we're seeing the outside world and how we are appraising our interactions with other people,” McCloskey said.

That phenomenon, Johnson said, is not limited to masks.

“People do assume that they know more than they do, on a lot of issues. It's probably more widespread than people realize,” he said. “What you've identified is that perception doesn't necessarily match reality.”

Introversion, mindfulness and neuroses

People who adhered to mask mandates early on in the pandemic tended to fall into two groups, McCloskey said.

There were the more conscientious types, who were more mindful of their behaviors and tended to not form habits as quickly.

“People who are conscientious just had fewer habits in general. They reported that they didn't do things as automatically, they would do things much more deliberately,” McCloskey said. “So, in this case, shifting their behavior to the new recommendations was probably easier than for people who are less conscientious and therefore not monitoring their behaviors as closely and who may engage in behaviors more on autopilot than people who are more conscientious.”

The other group are those McCloskey said were more neurotic, which he defined as people who had the “tendency to feel negative emotions.”

“What we found was that neurotic individuals did often have higher habit. They, in general, had a lot more automaticity for their behaviors,” she said. “In the context of COVID, especially if they're feeling more anxiety about COVID, they're going to feel more rewarded for wearing their masks.”

Pagoto said some people may also be continuing to wear masks because they prefer a sense of anonymity.

“People who are more introverted, for example, may hang on to masks a little bit more, because they don't mind being a little bit concealed and covered up,” she said. “Whereas maybe people who are more extroverted might be like, ‘I need to get this thing off so I can talk and I can emote.’”

But considering the shifting expectations from the CDC and varying requirements of businesses, Pagoto said whatever the reasons are to continue wearing a mask people should just feel comfortable leaving them on.

“When it comes to mask wearing, if you want to wear it more than the CDC is saying, I think people should continue to do that, if that's what they're comfortable with,” she said. “You can't be too safe. If you exceed the level of the CDC recommendations, you're just even safer.”

That being said, Bruce’s business has suffered because of her continued use of masks. The pandemic itself was a hurdle, and some patrons have expressed their dislike for business’ mask requirement. She said her business has taken “a huge hit.”

“I have had people who won’t come in because we require a mask,” she said. “I have lost some business because I require that.”