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Cultural psychology explains striking regional differences in COVID-19 mask use


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 20, 2021—Recent news footage of young people partying without masks on spring break has raised anew what has become one of the most persistent questions of the pandemic: Why, despite the well-documented dangers of COVID-19, do there continue to be those who refuse to wear masks?

More broadly, why is the pandemic is still raging in countries like the US, the UK, and South Africa, but has been contained in countries like Thailand and South Korea? What explains these striking regional differences?

A new research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today by, professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, provides an answer rooted in cultural psychology: collectivism vs. individualism.

Wearing masks can be annoying, and people in individualistic cultures are less willing to wear masks because they tend to prioritize their personal convenience or preference over the collective welfare. Moreover, people in individualistic cultures tend to view masks as a symbolic infringement on their personal choice and freedom—as demonstrated by anti-mask protests featuring signs like “Masks are muzzles.” Compared to people in individualistic cultures, people in collectivistic cultures tend to be more concerned with the group’s needs, goals, and interests.

Analyzing a dataset of 367,109 people in 29 countries and another dataset of 277,219 Facebook users in 67 countries, Lu found that mask use is higher in more collectivistic countries (e.g., South Korea, Thailand, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates) than in more individualistic countries (e.g., the US, South Africa). The link between collectivism and mask use is robust even after accounting for a host of control variables, including demographics, population density, GDP per capita, access to healthcare, and government response stringency.

Importantly, this link also exists within the United States: Analyzing a dataset of 248,941 individuals in all 50 states and another dataset of 16,737 individuals in all 50 states, Lu found that mask use is higher in more collectivistic US states (e.g., Hawaii) than in more individualistic US states (e.g., Montana, North Dakota). The link between collectivism and mask use is again robust after accounting for a comprehensive set of control variables, including political orientation.

A key implication of this research is that, net of other factors, more collectivistic cultures are less vulnerable to global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. To curb the pandemic, it is critical that people prioritize the collective welfare over personal convenience. To facilitate mask usage in individualistic cultures, practitioners could appeal to individualistic tastes through mask design (e.g., masks that are both effective and stylish).

“Understanding cultural differences not only provides insight into the current pandemic, but also helps the world prepare for future crises,” says Lu.

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