Even as I was thinking about how to compose this post so that it would be more informative than provocative, the President's office stated that the President believes that wearing a face mask is a "personal choice." See the sound bite here. In this press briefing, the President's Press Secretary confirms that the President believes people should follow the directions of local authorities, and that he has no problems with people who do wear masks.
This sound bite offers a much better intro than I was going to give because the question I have is whether or not the President can affect things, for better or worse, by wearing a mask. It is very hard to find reputable studies that confirm there is no harm to wearing a mask. I suspect this is because the answer to this question (i.e., Is it hazardous to wear a mask during a pandemic?) is so self-evident that no one is asking it. Unfortunately, because the President is stating that he has no problem with people who do wear masks makes me wonder if he has actually wondered about that question. The truth is, science is confirming that mask wearing does, in fact, decrease the chances of getting sick. It does not, however, eliminate chances of getting sick, and perhaps that is why the President believes it is a personal choice.
The science behind mask-wearing in this pandemic is even more emphatic on the effectiveness of masks from keeping us from spreading the disease. This is extremely important because we found out months ago that people can be contagious and a-symptomatic for a good amount of time. This means that people could be sick, and then getting other people sick, without even knowing they are sick in the first place. Wearing a mask dramatically decreases the chance of spreading the disease. This data is so easy to find that I will not limit you to a single source, or even suggest the key words to search. This is important because there have been people who have been criticized for coughing on fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. The public takes the intentional spreading of the virus very seriously, especially when they think it's being spread to or around them. With this said, does the "personal choice" argument hold up in the case of spreading the disease? Should it be a personal choice whether or not someone spreads the disease to someone else? In the case of coughing on produce, the answer is obviously "no." Does it change at all when a person knows they may be sick and does not take precautions? But that is not the point of this post.
The point of the post is whether or not the President can affect public health just by wearing or not-wearing a mask? It should be noted that, as I write this sentence, I have never seen him wear a mask. Second, what would keep someone from wearing a mask when there is seemingly no harm to wearing one, and even common sense to say that there is some benefit to wearing one? Second question first.
I have thought long and hard about this one. I just found one photo that looked legit, but why are there so few un-doctored photos of the President wearing a mask? This is as opposed to so many more photos of the Vice President wearing a mask. I use this comparison because I presume those two are aligned on many things. Here are some ideas:
The President has boasted about his physical strength and stamina. Historically, physical strength and stamina was highly regarded in leaders. Even now, many world leaders like to demonstrate their power every now and then to help their constituents feel better about their leadership. Perhaps the President sees mask-wearing as a vulnerability. Perhaps we will question his strength and stamina if we see him questioning his own. Lest you think I am partisan in my observation, Presidents have been pressured to go on morning jogs, stop smoking, and otherwise hide impairments and illnesses for more than 200 years, so it's a thing with these guys, and it's bi-partisan, and we are usually fine with the charade.
The President may believe that the majority of people are opposed to wearing masks, and wants to give these people a voice. This would make sense since the President has been quarantined, very much like the average American, and might have to guess how the average American feels about masks. In fact, I assume that the average American is pro-mask, but I haven't done an objective survey to support my opinion either. I wear a mask to fit in (among other reasons). Maybe he also does not wear a mask, to fit in.
The President has often been noted for taking an inductive approach to decision-making: he chooses what he believes and then finds the data to support it. We all do this every day, so we cannot judge. Because the President now has people briefing him, they might be filtering out information that would otherwise allow him to come to a more objective decision about wearing masks.
Some reason I have not considered.
Statistically-speaking, the actual answer is #4. If I have thought of it, it probably is not the actual answer. This I have learned from my years of training and experience as a Psychologist. The answer to the question above is we probably do not know why the President is not wearing a mask. It seems self-evident, but that is just when we apply our own opinions and experiences to the problem and try to empathize our way through. Failure to go to the source and ask good questions probably accounts for the heavy polarization we see these days in the media and the neighborhood.
Now to the first question: can the President affect the pandemic and public health by wearing or not wearing a mask? What I am referencing here is the disproportionate affect on people's opinions that those in leadership have. Because the President is a person of rank and authority, his words and actions affect not just policies and markets, but people's thoughts.
Managing the affect of authority on individuals' thoughts is not a new concept though. In fact, my Ethics for Psychologists book from 1999 has this statement:
Psychologists do not solicit testimonials from current psychotherapy clients or patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence (p86).
I suspect we have been aware of the special influence of those in authority prior to 1999. The point is, everyone knows that authority carries influence, and the higher the authority, the stronger the influence. So, in response to the primary question, I think we can assume that the President can influence public health and the pandemic by his personal choices about wearing a mask. And, based on the evidence that there is limited harm and huge potential benefit to the individual and public health from wearing a mask, he should probably wear a mask and be photographed doing it much more often.
This post is ultimately not about the President. It is about leaders. I want to encourage the reader to think about who their leaders are, or if they, in some way, are an authority to others. Consider the influence of choices about masks on those who are watching and believing. Who are these influencers?
Health / Mental Health Workers
Parents / Heads of Households
The list could go on. Do not underestimate the influence you have on the people around you, and do not underestimate how you are influenced, for better or worse, by those you observe.