As we pulled into the parking lot of Trader Joe’s in Pittsford, New York, I saw people in masks entering and leaving the grocery store. I looked over to my partner, L. We were both fully vaccinated, and the grocery store chain had dropped its mask requirement, following the updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. It was one of the first major chains to do so—and so we had decided we’d go shopping maskless.
And yet, I was nervous.
“People are wearing masks,” I whimpered.
“It’s fine,” L reassured me. I put a mask in my pocket, just in case.
We exited the car. We walked to the store and headed to grab a cart. Another couple was approaching too—they were about the same age as us, but they were wearing masks. The man saw us going for the cart and leapt backward awkwardly.
“You take it,” he said.
In the store, we saw the usual Saturday afternoon crowd, busily picking out cheap produce and examining the latest quirky store-brand products on the shelves. All. Wearing. Masks.
I felt as though the other shoppers we staring at us. I imagined their suspicion.
I knew that I did not need the mask. I trust the reports that the vaccine is highly effective. I knew that I would not pose a risk to others if I didn’t wear my mask. And yet, the compulsion to put it on was overwhelming. I imagine it was for many other people in the store, too: More than 60 percent of the adults in Monroe County, New York, are fully vaccinated. That means a portion of the shoppers should indeed be masking. But I was staring at a sea of masks.
Standing there in the store gripping the mask in my pocket, my mind went to my work. I teach college courses in philosophy and cognitive science, and for a while now, I’ve been working on a research project about the psychology of social norms. Social norms are the (often hidden) social rules that tell members of a community which actions are appropriate or inappropriate in different situations. University of Pennsylvania philosopher, psychologist, and economist Cristina Bicchieri famously called social norms “the grammar of society.” One key feature of her theory of social norms is that we don’t follow them because they tell us the rational thing to do—often, they don’t, and we follow them anyway. Rather, according to Bicchieri, we conform to social norms because we think other people are doing so, and because we think other people expect us to do so as well. This can even create scenarios where nobody actually thinks that following a particular social norm is a good idea, but we all do it anyway.
At the start of the pandemic, mask wearing was just common sense: wear a mask, keep yourself and others safe. It was a little awkward and hard to get used to. But over the course of the past year, it has become a social norm—something that’s uncomfortable not to do. And now, as mask wearing has suddenly become medically unnecessary for many of us, the psychology of social norms can help us to understand why the practice continues—or why we feel so awkward skipping it.
As we work through the reasons why masks are still in fashion, be aware: The psychology of social norms is complicated. There’s no single explanation for why we feel compelled to adhere to social norms, or why we tend to respond negatively to those who violate them; you may recognize yourself in a few of the examples in this piece, or none of them. Rather, collective social norms emerge as the result of a number of different, complex psychological processes, which may look different in different individuals. (And psychology itself has been going through a bit of a rough patch recently, making it a good idea to take all this with a grain of salt.) There are also reasons to mask even if you’re vaccinated; perhaps you’re trying to model the behavior for your children who are not yet vaccinated, or you have a factor that puts you at heighted risk for COVID-19. Nevertheless, exploring some of the different factors that psychologists think influence social norm conformity can help us to understand why going to the grocery store without a mask on has never felt so weird—and can point us to how we’ll finally be able to take our masks off.
Part of the enduring impulse to wear a mask is that for much of the pandemic, attitudes toward mask wearing have become a partisan issue. Social psychologist Dominic Abrams has suggested that shared norms like mask wearing help us to identify in-group members, which in turn helps us decide how to interact with different people. Think of the last time you were at a live sporting event. Seeing someone wearing your team’s jersey tells you that you share a group identity with them, which is kind of nice—it makes it feel like you belong. An ugly counterpart to this nice feeling is that we are sometimes motivated to enforce social norms upon others in order to maintain the distinctiveness of our own group, and to help us spot out-group members who might be potential threats—what some psychologists have called “normative differentiation.” This might also explain why some have gotten so angry about vaccinated people starting to ditch their masks: It blurs a once-clear signal of partisan identity.
But partisanship isn’t the whole story. A more practical reason to conform to the shared norms of your group is that they make it easier to coordinate with one another. If the people around you all follow the same norms while driving, ordering food at the restaurant, or running a meeting, that’s going to make everything run much more smoothly than if people aren’t on the same page. Norms are the sort of thing you don’t notice until you find yourself in a place with very different social norms, and suddenly every interaction feels effortful. (If you took a road trip to a different state during the pandemic, with different norms around masking and distancing, you might have noticed this). A consequence of this is that people who share your group identity are just going to feel a bit nicer and more familiar than those who don’t.
There are also more basic, biological reasons to adhere to social norms. Some neuroscientists have argued that a core function of the brain is to try to manage our exposure to the unexpected. Put simply, when we find ourselves in situations that are unpredictable and chaotic, our brains have to work overtime figuring out what’s going on and what we should do, which uses up energy. One way for the brain to manage these costs is to guide us toward situations that are more predictable and familiar (say, staying on a trail during a hike) and away from situations that are unpredictable and messy (like cutting through the woods). The way our brain does this is by making us feel uneasy when confronted with potentially chaotic situations—a sign we should chart a more familiar course.
When we interact with other people, managing our exposure to the unexpected also means taking into account what they expect from us. If we deviate from other people’s expectations, that is likely to in turn make their behavior less predictable. For instance, imagine if, the next time you saw people lined up to pay for their items at a cashier, you just cut in front of them and went to pay yourself. You would probably feel very uncomfortable, because you would be wandering into uncharted social territory. Who knows how the people around you would respond, or how that interaction might end? Now, imagine what would happen if you just followed the norm to line up behind your fellow customers. The latter scenario is obviously less uncomfortable and more predictable, because you have avoided the uncertainty that comes from violating other people’s expectations. The feeling you get even when you just contemplate violating other people’s expectations is called “the sense of should.”
When I entered the grocery store not wearing a mask, I was violating other people’s social expectations, which had been carefully established and upheld for more than a year. Whatever I knew about masks and vaccines at an intellectual level, violating those expectations still felt wrong. That feeling of “wrongness” can be worth listening to (it’s good we live in a world where it feels uncomfortable to cut in line). If you had entered a store a few months ago without your mask on and felt such a strong “sense of should” that you were compelled to put it on, adhering to the norm would have saved you more than avoiding strange looks or potential conflict. It would have kept you and the people around you safe. Throughout this pandemic, mask-wearing norms have helped us to smoothly navigate an unfamiliar and dangerous social environment, and reduce the spread of a deadly disease.
Now, for those of us who are lucky enough to have access to vaccines, that equation is starting to change. Psychologically adjusting to those changes is going to take some time, and some mutual understanding. As much as I am eager to be done with the pandemic, I couldn’t blame the vaccinated people in the store for masking up, at least until those social norms shift once again. As I shopped for my groceries, I could even feel it happening. I started to see a few other maskless faces, about 1 in every 10. I started to relax. At least we weren’t the only ones.