By: Yaakov Metz  | 

Why People Don't Wear Masks: Behavioral Economics and the Masked Culprit

Every day, we are plagued with decisions. And, as an increasing body of psychological research shows, our ability to make good decisions deteriorates as we make more choices. In other words, our ability to decide is a depletable resource. In psychology, this concept is known as “decision fatigue” and is one of the main reasons why, when offered a simple solution to a complex problem, we often opt for the path of least resistance. In the present pandemic, we are overrun with one complex solution after another. Whether it be strict quarantine measures imposed by government officials, travel limitations effectively making the world a much smaller place than it was just nine months ago, or an elusive vaccine that is yet to exist but is expected to be discovered in record time, chances are, the fatigue has already set in by the time you reached the end of this sentence.

There is, however, one decision that Goldman Sachs claims — if adhered to correctly — would prevent a 5% or $1 trillion GDP loss through preventing future lockdowns. That same choice could save 66,000 Americans, about the same number of people that fly through Newark International Airport every day, from dying of the Coronavirus by December, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Both metrics refer to the simple choice to dawn a small piece of fabric over one’s mouth and nose. Participation in mask-wearing is an essential prosocial behavior, yet many people choose not to do so. Some detest encroachment of their personal liberties, whereas others simply doubt the effectiveness of mask wearing. As we reluctantly trudge into the better part of a year with the global pandemic, it is time to ask — free of criticism and with sheer curiosity — why don’t people wear masks? And, is there anything that can be done to change that behavior?

One of the cornerstones of economics is the assumption of rational behavior, or that individuals consistently make choices that offer the greatest level of personal utility. However, a recently renewed field of study known as “behavioral economics,” which examines the crossroads of economics and psychology, notes the exception to the rule of rational behavior. One of the most studied experiments in behavioral economics is known as the “Ultimatum Game,” where two players are tasked with sharing a specific set of money. Player one is given all the money and is asked to divide the money with the other player. If player two accepts the money, it is distributed per player 1’s offer (say 50/50); however, if player two rejects player one’s offer, neither receive any portion of the money. According to classical economics, it is within player two’s best interest to accept any offer from player one that is greater than zero. The assumption is player two will act rationally, after all, $1 is better than nothing. However, less equal offers (say 80/20) are often rejected by player 2, and this demonstrates a direct deviation of one of the most basic rules in classical economics: presumption of rationality. Behavioral economics studies this phenomenon by considering additional factors of decision, such as fairness, injustice and revenge.

By understanding this principle, behavioral economists have helped solve real-life issues such as drunk driving with the use of free nachos, saving for retirement by reframing what it means to invest, and even urinal backsplash with the use of cartoon flies. All the aforementioned examples were accomplished with the use of what behavioral economists like to call “nudge theory,” or positive reinforcement through subtle suggestions that influence decision-making without changing the available choices. A 2018 study sought to study a remedy to childhood obesity by encouraging school cafeteria patrons to purchase healthier options. By placing the healthy food at students’ eye level, there was a significant increase in the purchase of nutritious meals. This behavioral “nudge” clashes with classical economics, which would assume that students would still purchase the pizza regardless of placement, because that choice will provide the greatest personal utility.

What behavioral nudges can be implemented to encourage mask-wearing? Before this can be answered, we must first understand why people do not wear masks from a behavioral economics standpoint. Facts and data do not usually spur action; rather humans tend to respond well to salience, or the quality of being noticeable. When presented with uncertainty, we often look at our surroundings, and base choices off things we can touch, see and feel. Immediate cues suggest that COVID-19 is not a horrible disease because people are not grotesquely dying in public, and total anarchy has not ensued. This roadblock to mask-wearing ties in nicely with yet another complicating factor known as the “Law of Small Numbers.” This principle asserts that humans tend to overestimate how much of our personal experience is like the experience of everyone else, generalizing the neighborhood-wide for the nationwide. Optimism bias leads to the belief that an individual is less likely to get sick with COVID-19 and also contributes to non-mask wearing. This fallacy, often subconscious, drives action by reinforcing the thought, “but it could never happen to me.”

On a broader scale, given the chronological order of events, urban and densely populated areas were the first to have exposure to COVID-19 en masse, and therefore were also the first to warn everyone about the detrimental effects of not wearing a mask. These early warnings to rural areas were both given and received as a reprimand. A mass psychological reactance ensued where individuals felt that an outside power was threatening to limit their range of choices. People promptly responded by not wearing masks, even though they may have otherwise done so on their own accord. Imagine being told to take out the trash by a sibling, and although you were planning on doing so just a minute ago, not taking out the trash is now a position you will now uphold at all costs.

As for the implementation of behavioral nudges, a basic backbone and powerful tool of behavioral economics are communal norms. These norms include not cutting in line, not playing heavy metal in a library and wearing clothing. Third-party punishment is the censure one receives from members of their community for not abiding by these norms. This social pressure is one of the most powerful tools for guiding pro-social behavior in a community. 

Creating a social norm is a science in and of itself. The first step in doing so is to have a binary benchmark as to whether one is abiding the norm or not. For example, one is either naked while playing heavy metal in a library or not, there is no in-between and zero ambiguity. Although this may seem intuitive, this was one of the largest failures in the implementation of masks. In the beginning of the pandemic, the narrative was to not wear masks and instead to save them for healthcare workers. Present-day expert advice only mandates an old hand-me-down bandana that can be tied to one’s face. Equally unclear in public health directives was when to wear a mask, whether it be in the park, or when walking by people on the sidewalk. Not only did this confuse people as to when they should wear a mask, but it also made the social norm of wearing a mask impossible to define.

The second and equally important factor is to mitigate social reactance by carefully choosing the right messenger. Ohioans do not want to be lectured by the New York governor; they want familiarity with a person or character with whom they identify. This issue is already being addressed with PSAs coming from the NFL, Pixar and Sesame Street, organizations that are familiar to most Americans. More local sources like neighborhood doctors and ads appealing to specific regional demographics add a personal connection that eventually appeals to the broader audience.

The American people need to be given clear guidelines on when to wear and when not to wear a mask. Coupled with the behavioral nudges from personalized PSAs and local outlets, behavioral norms will begin to solidify, and third-party punishment will take care of the rest. It is important to recognize that social reactance is a broad phenomenon and can be recognized in our everyday lives. You are likely reinforcing non-mask wearing by screaming at a bear faced coffee goer when social norms have not stabilized. Although it may make you feel better about yourself, it is not going to get any more masks on more faces. The issue of mask wearing reminds us of how complicated simple solutions can become when attempting to alter the social fabric even for the betterment of society. With the help of behavioral economics we can start to effectively promote mask wearing through the science of unmasking behavior.

Photo Caption: In an ill world behavior is often the best medicine.
Photo Credit: Pixabay