The Social Influence of Wearing a Mask (or Not)

Wearing a mask has a social effect when it influences others' behavior.

Posted Jul 08, 2020

Mix and Match Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Mix and Match Studio/Shutterstock

America is in the midst of a massive social psychology experiment that is determining which parts of the country have lower, or higher, rates of infection and mortality from coronavirus. Infections are spiking again in way too many parts of the U.S., despite there being clear measures that we can all take to reduce new infections—wearing a mask and limiting time in risky situations. The parts of the country (and the world) that have flattened the curve have adopted those practices and the places that are seeing a resurgence have ignored this basic public health information. Given that masks are effective and easy, why isn’t everyone wearing them?

As a highly contagious disease, managing COVID-19 as a society involves the sum total of every individual’s actions. Just as with drunk driving, the choices of the individual can have serious consequences on those around them. Therefore, we all have a vested interest in how others respond to both of these threats. As Americans, we value individual liberties, but we still recognize that one person’s rights end where another’s begin. The best balance between individual freedoms and societal responsibilities has been fiercely debated through our history and is now being played out on the battlefield of mask-wearing.

Do the societal benefits of wearing a mask outweigh the loss of individual freedom to not want to wear one?

If you look at the science, it is very clear that wearing a mask and practicing social distancing reduce the spread of coronavirus. From a scientific perspective, this is undebatable and Europe’s ability to stay open proves it every day. Unfortunately, there are those who don’t believe these basic facts or even go so far as to label it all a lie and a conspiracy. These people may change their minds if they have direct (and likely terrible) personal experience that proves otherwise, but they will probably stay fixed in their beliefs. It’s hard to have a reasonable or productive conversation when you can’t even agree on the basic facts.

Those hardliners aside, there are people who kind of believe that masks are important but are looser about wearing them than they should be. Maybe they are tired of this whole thing (understandable) and are getting sloppy. Maybe they (falsely) believe that COVID-19 is no big deal, that it’s just like the common flu. What will it take for these potentially convincing people to take this more seriously?

Masks as Social Signal

Wearing a mask in public, or not, is visible to others. Whether you intend to or not, you are sending a signal to everyone who sees you about whether you are taking the pandemic seriously. Others may get the wrong idea about you based on this one data point, but many of them are nonetheless making assumptions about you. Because the response to the pandemic in general, and mask-wearing in particular, has become so politicized, it’s hard to not have opinions about what one sees—one way or the other. Mask-wearing has unfortunately gotten caught up in a broader culture war that has significant implications for everyone’s health and the economy overall.

We are social creatures and are influenced by the behavior of others. Whether or not you wear a mask doesn’t only have a direct medical effect on those around you in terms of potential viral spread, but it also has a social effect when it influences what others will do. If someone sees lots of people wearing masks, they are more likely to also do it. If they see few people wearing masks, they are less likely. Some of this may be related to peer pressure and not wanting to stand out. But also, because masks are so visible, it’s an informal survey of how others feel, which consciously and unconsciously influences our own opinions on the matter.

If the people you hang out with tend to be rather lax about drinking and driving, then you may be likely to loosen your own standards. Alternatively, if the people you are with tend to be consistent about designated drivers, then you are more likely to lean that way, too. This social influence can happen completely implicitly, without any direct conversations about what one should do.

What’s the Acceptable Risk?

Part of why this unspoken social influence occurs is that we are constantly assessing risk and adjusting it to an acceptable level. For example, if we are running late and the conditions are good, we may drive faster because the slightly greater risk is worth arriving earlier. But if the roads are slick, we will probably slow down because the increased risk isn’t worth it. This same mental risk assessment explains why sometimes people use condoms and sometimes they don’t—unfortunately, not always for reasons that are supported by what the science says about relative levels of risk.

In all of these examples, and many others, we consciously and unconsciously look to others’ behavior to inform our own assessment of risk. Given that empirical research is a new activity in the course of human history, it makes sense that we do this social referencing—if someone else is doing something and seemingly unharmed, then it’s probably OK to do it. Overall, this tends to work, but not for risks that take time to show their negative consequences (e.g., one can drive drunk a bunch of times before suddenly something terrible happens) or where one can’t accurately assess the risk (e.g., someone can be contagious but asymptomatic and infect people unknowingly).

This is where we need to apply our higher-level cognitive skills and not just go by what our gut tells us about what is safe—which is why we don’t rely on drunk people’s self-assessment about their ability to drive safely. This is also why drug trials involve rigid protocols to ensure that we are actually measuring what we think we’re measuring. Social referencing is helpful, but it sometimes gets it wrong, as that old parental cliché points out: If all your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?

Even so, making a point of setting up a designated driver conveys to your friends that drunk driving is too risky and perhaps influences them to feel the same. Similarly, wearing a mask and being clear that you are taking other appropriate precautions also sends a message to the people around you that there is an unacceptable level of risk with unprotected exposure and you are taking steps to reduce those risks. Hopefully, they take that into account in their own mental math—and then perhaps influence others as well. The idea of herd immunity doesn’t only apply to antibodies—it also applies to behavioral influence.

Masks as Social Responsibility

Wearing a mask, as well as practicing various other risk-reduction habits, is not just about reducing one’s own chances of contracting coronavirus. There is also the matter of spreading it to others that one comes in contact with who may be more vulnerable—loved ones and strangers alike. But let’s not forget the influence we have on the behavior of others by the example that we set—are we normalizing riskier or safer behavior?

Nobody wants another lockdown, but to avoid one, we need to take the risk seriously. Wearing a mask and avoiding crowded situations is a small sacrifice for a much greater good—keeping people healthy and employed. This pandemic has made it clear that, as a society, we are all in this together and we all have our part to play.