The Case for Mask-optional Classrooms at Amherst

Poler Family Professor of Psychology Catherine A. Sanderson argues that the college’s current mask policy for classes makes little scientific sense and calls for in-class masking requirements to end.

On March 9, 2020, Amherst College became one of the first schools in the country to cancel in-person classes and move to online learning, even though not a single case of Covid had been detected on campus. At the time, this decision seemed like an over-reaction and prompted considerable criticism by many students and families.

Although Amherst’s decision initially appeared somewhat rash, its wisdom quickly became clear. And as an Amherst professor, I felt proud that we were one of the first colleges to make the difficult choice to send students home. We were making decisions guided by science — and moving to online learning that spring clearly did save lives.

For the next two years, science continued to guide campus policies. Throughout the 2021-2022 academic year, Amherst set strict rules for all members of the campus community: full vaccination (including the booster), weekly testing, and wearing a KN95 mask in all classrooms. Once again, I felt pride — and relief — when talking to colleagues who taught at other schools, whose students were not required to be vaccinated and who were unable to insist on masks even in their own classrooms.

But as of Oct. 17, our official Covid policy, in which mask requirements are determined based on anonymous voting, is clearly not based on science.

The new policy is — of course — absurd. It means some students might attend three of their classes without wearing a mask, and wear a mask in their fourth. It means that students eat all of their meals in a crowded campus dining hall, and may then pull out a mask to wear in class. Perhaps most importantly, it means that the preferences of a single (perhaps anxious, perhaps hypochondriac) student take priority over perhaps equally valid preferences from their peers, who might struggle with hearing their professor’s voice through a mask or understanding explanations when facial expressions are hidden. This policy seems especially unwarranted given scientific data showing that well-fitting KN95 masks provide excellent protection to the wearer, allowing high-risk community members to protect themselves even when others around them are unmasked. And on a campus in which all students, faculty, and staff are all required to be vaccinated and boosted, the risk of serious consequences from Covid infection is extraordinarily low.

Most faculty are quite ready for the mask requirement to end. So why does this policy continue? In meeting after meeting, only a few faculty voices are heard — and those voices are loudly and vehemently calling for the policy to continue. These loud voices create the perception that these views are more common, and more fully accepted, than they actually are. This condition, in which a majority of group members privately hold one belief but incorrectly assume that most others feel differently, is known as pluralistic ignorance.

Pluralistic ignorance occurs in part because we form norms based on public expressions, even when these statements do not reflect most group members’ private beliefs. For example, an in-depth study of a small Methodist community in the 1930s found that a vocal minority led to the perception of strong community norms against gambling, drinking, and smoking, even though most residents were both supporting and engaging in such activities. Similarly, research shows that most college students feel personally uncomfortable with excessive alcohol use on campus, but believe that other students are perfectly comfortable with the amount of drinking.

Given our innate human drive to feel connected to others in our social group, most people hesitate to express views that challenge the perceived norm — even if that norm is wrongly believed to be far more widespread than it actually is. Why is it so hard to challenge members of our community? Research in neuroscience reveals that our tendency to conform to the norms of our social group is hardwired into our brains. For virtually all of us, it is far more comfortable to fit in than to stand out — which helps explain why I, along with most of my like-minded colleagues, stay silent when the mask policy is discussed in faculty meetings.

But here’s the good news: As I’ve discovered in my own research on social norms, often conducted in collaboration with my Amherst thesis students, educating people about the errors we so often make in perceiving these norms helps reduce such misunderstandings. Most importantly, explaining the psychological processes that lead us to misperceive what those around us are actually thinking — to believe that most students are comfortable with the amount of alcohol use on campus or that most faculty are in favor of a classroom mask requirement — can help us resist the pressure to stay silent in the face of a small but vocal minority in all sorts of situations — with friends, with teammates, and even with faculty colleagues.