July 16, 2020

New research from Susquehanna University’s Rolfe Peterson, assistant professor of political science, explores attitudes toward mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In “Toxic Mask-ulinity: The link between masculine toughness and affective reactions to mask wearing in the COVID-19 era,” published in the journal Politics and Gender, Peterson and co-author Carl Palmer, associate professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, find that men (and women, to a lesser extent) who identify as “tough” were more likely to respond negatively to wearing masks.

“We find that men and women who embrace masculine norms of toughness are equally likely to feel negative responses toward the idea of wearing masks, even after accounting for other predictors such as partisanship and ideology,” Peterson said. “While toughness also predicts positive attitudes toward mask wearing for men and women, the negative effect is larger for men.”

Peterson and Palmer surveyed 805 individuals, of whom 61% were male and 39% were female. To gauge feelings on mask wearing, respondents were asked whether they felt controlled, weak, scared, silly, brave, caring, strong and protected when wearing masks. Results controlled for social and political identity and demographics. In order to account for individuals’ location and COVID-19 threat level, the survey included a variable that captures respondents’ state’s policies toward mask wearing.

There’s plenty of past research that examines the correlation between masculinity and engaging in risky behavior, Peterson said.

“Arguably this stems from social pressures for men to adopt masculine norms such as toughness, which are regularly influenced by agents of socialization such as the family, peer groups and school environment,” he said. “Furthermore, men express greater levels of toughness under conditions of threat, combined with expressing dubious attitudes toward help-seeking when their embrace of masculine norms deepens.”

Peterson admitted that, although feelings toward mask wearing should predict future behavior, his research is limited in its ability to examine behavioral outcomes of beliefs toward mask wearing since nearly every state has some form of mask requirement at this time.

“Even with a limited number of respondents, we still can demonstrate meaningful variation in attitudes toward mask wearing and masculinity,” Peterson said. “In each model, the effect of masculine toughness is positive and significant; a stronger belief that men should be tough corresponds to greater levels of negativity regarding mask wearing.”