Can Wearing Masks Lead Us to Take More Risks?

Risk compensation theory offers surprising insights.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

There can be no doubt that anybody who has lived through the unprecedented year of 2020 will have become oddly acquainted with face coverings. As we explore the “new normal,” masks have become essential protective equipment and many countries have made the wearing of face coverings obligatory in public spaces such as shops and schools. Indeed, I am beginning to wonder if my little daughter—born during lockdown—will grow up accessorising cuddly toys with face masks.

In a very non-scientific sort of way, I have even started categorising people according to the type of face masks they opt for:

  • The survivalist type. You can spot this type from afar. They usually wear coverings reminiscent of gas masks and keep a good five-metre distance from all other people on the street.
  • The efficient type. These guys have a no-nonsense approach, typically opting for a disposable, surgical face mask.
  • The stylish type. This category prefers pretty, patterned fabric masks to the formal blue colour and medical feel of surgical face coverings.
  • The expressive type. Slightly more creative, this group usually opt for homemade, hand-sewn or knitted masks, often featuring a bold fashion or even political statement.
  • The eccentric type. This final category stands out due to their unusual mask choices. To stay safe, they may repurpose household items like swimming goggles, paper bags, sanitary towels or even plastic water tanks. Each to their own.

If worn correctly, face masks may decrease viral transmission, yet some researchers have warned against compelling their universal use. An important reason underlying their appeals for caution is a decision phenomenon commonly referred to as “risk compensation”.

Cottonbro/Pexels
What face masks do you opt for?
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

What is risk compensation?

The concept of risk compensation stems from the field of decision psychology and describes people’s tendency to taker greater risks when they perceive themselves and their environment to be safe. This can lead to a curious behavioural reaction when presented with new safety measures. Interventions aimed at protecting people may create a false sense of security and thereby promote higher levels of risky behaviour. Consider the following three examples:

1.       In an attempt to improve his overall fitness and wellbeing, recreational smoker Matt has recently taken up yoga. Knowing that the fast-paced vinyasa classes decrease his risk of developing cardiac health problems, he no longer worries so much about the occasional cigarette and actually ends up smoking more frequently.

2.       During a routine check-up, Anna’s doctor notices a Vitamin D deficiency, which leaves her at a greater risk for losing bone density. As a result, she starts taking daily multivitamin supplements. Knowing that she’s getting her daily recommended doses of all essential vitamins, she stops paying attention to her diet. While she previously made sure to eat several portions of fruit and vegetables per day, she now goes for days without eating any greens.

3.       For her 10th birthday, Sonia receives a brand new bike. She can’t wait to try it out, but her parents won’t let her leave the house until she’s wearing full protective gear including helmet, knee and elbow pads. With all this extra padding, Sonia feels completely secure on her new bike and rides much faster than she usually would.

The examples above highlight how measures intended to reduce risk could create a false sense of security. Counterintuitively, they might tempt people into being less careful. Evidence for risk compensation has been provided by several research studies, with much work focusing on the effectiveness of safety helmet regulations. In a laboratory experiment, participants equipped with helmets were found to take greater risks than their unprotected counterparts. Another study suggested that helmed cyclists sought greater risks by making less use of cycling lanes.

Are face masks creating a false sense of security?

Just like the health and safety measures from the examples above, it is possible that mandatory face coverings may not bring the unmitigated benefit initially anticipated. There is no doubt that current guidelines are well-intended, yet they could end up promoting a false sense of security and tempt people into relaxing other health-conscious behaviours such as social distancing or hand washing. As such, guidelines dictating the wear of face coverings could be counterproductive when trying to tackle the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

Does this mean we should drop face coverings altogether? Certainly not. First, in spite of previous evidence for risk compensation, not all research has been conclusive on the topic. Additional studies with more stringent experimental designs may be necessary. Furthermore, very little is known about behavioural reactions to safety measures in the specific context of COVID-19. Nevertheless, initial studies suggest limited effectiveness of face masks for containing respiratory illnesses outside of hospital environments.

Overall, our current knowledge warrants a careful approach to the drafting of new public health guidelines for COVID-19 or other diseases. It is important to reiterate the fact that face coverings need to be combined with other health behaviours such as frequent hand washing for maximum efficiency. Additionally, targeting guidelines about the compulsory use of face masks to fewer, high-risk areas might be an option. This could help to draw attention to particularly risky environments and thereby help to maintain people’s vigilance and efforts in complying with other health recommendations.

Have you noticed any changes in your other health behaviours when wearing a mask? It might be worth looking out for signs of risk compensation to help keep yourself and others safe.