COVID-19

No mask? Behavioral scientists on how we make pandemic decisions.

Scott Tong Jul 28, 2020
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People wearing face masks stroll in Charleston, South Carolina. Decision-making can be influenced by the decisions of people you identify with. Sean Rayford/Getty Images
COVID-19

No mask? Behavioral scientists on how we make pandemic decisions.

Scott Tong Jul 28, 2020
People wearing face masks stroll in Charleston, South Carolina. Decision-making can be influenced by the decisions of people you identify with. Sean Rayford/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

By now, 31 U.S. states have imposed mandates requiring face masks statewide. Public health professionals have been advocating such preventive actions for months, yet there remain pockets of stiff resistance to things like masks, social distancing and staying home when possible.

States with mask mandates as of July 24
Source: Masks4all, Datawrapper

Head scratcher? To some, yes. But experts in behavioral science — and its subcategory of behavioral economics — aren’t so surprised. It turns out that in a lot of social situations, we all make choices that are, in the words of Nobel laureate economist Richard Thaler, “predictably irrational.”

Like it or not, study after study suggests humans are good followers. Evidence says we tend to make decisions about whether to wear a helmet, or give blood, or drink alcohol (and how much) that are eerily similar to the decisions of those who live near us and think like us. Perhaps even shop like us.

Northern Michigan University graduate student Audrey Bauman said that in this pandemic, she’s seeing mask-wearing patterns differ significantly at the two supermarkets she frequents in the town of Marquette.

“Meijer, I would say masking about 60-70%. Walmart, I would say 10 to 20. It was a big difference,” Bauman said. “Same town, same highway.”

(Note: We spoke to Bauman just as Walmart was rolling out a new rule requiring all shoppers to wear face coverings.)

Conscious or not, many of us make these types of decisions based on our team, our identity.

Researchers at Syracuse University found that the biggest predictor of mask wearing is not age or location. It’s political party. In a Gallup poll this month, 94% of Democrats said they “always” or “very often” wear masks, compared to 46% of Republicans.

“Our behavior is guided by so many more factors than just the facts that we know,” said Gretchen Chapman, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “What are other people like us doing? What does my behavior say about the groups that I belong with?”

“Our behavior is guided by so many more factors than just the facts…. What are other people like us doing?”

Gretchen Chapman, Carnegie Mellon decision science professor

But why? Why do studies find that many of us use less electricity when we’re told our neighbor has cut back? That we often will reuse towels in a hotel when informed that others who stayed in the same room did the same? (The study’s clever title: “A Room with a Viewpoint.”)

It turns out we tend to benefit from rules of thumb, or mental shortcuts, when making all manner of decisions in our daily lives. Perhaps we have to.

“We really lean on the behaviors of others around us … because if we think about every single decision … you would never get anything done.”

Syon Bhanot, Swarthmore College behavioral economist

“We really lean on the behavior of others around us,” said Syon Bhanot, behavioral economist at Swarthmore College, “because if we think about every single decision as one you have to rationally think through the costs and benefits, you would never get anything done in a day.”

He calls this a social norm. As the pandemic worsens in the United States, the norm of mask wearing is trending up.

But social distancing? Not so much, including at the grocery store.

Source: Gallup

“People weren’t following the little arrows to go one way down the aisle and just cutting in front of you to grab what they wanted,” said Jeanne Hyde, a printing shop owner in Little Rock, Arkansas. “It was like the mask was a superhero, and you didn’t have to social distance if you got one of those on.”

“It was like the mask was a superhero, and you didn’t have to social distance.”

Jeanne Hyde, shop owner in Little Rock, Arkansas

Her friend Luis Calderon, a health insurance professional also in Little Rock, said non-distancing at the supermarket has made him anxious when he shops.

“My Apple Watch picked up that my heart rate went up,” Calderon said. “And my watch thought that I was exercising, so it gave me credit.”

Question is, when people aren’t doing something considered appropriate and safe, can the power of social norms be leveraged to change behavior? Perhaps, if you consider this remarkable ad campaign from the 1980s that tapped into state identity.

That familiar phrase “Don’t mess with Texas” actually came from this state marketing campaign to discourage littering. Seems Texans indeed listened to ol’ Willie Nelson: Organizers said littering fell 71% in four years.

Today, Montana’s trying a similar message, with posters and digital ads featuring masked men doing outdoorsy things like fishing and riding snowmobiles. The caption: “Montanans wear face coverings all the time.”

“You know, you cover your face when you’re out hunting. You cover your face when you’re out skiing,” Bhanot said. “This isn’t that different than that. It’s trying to destigmatize mask wearing.”

Thing is, these public health actions can be hard to sustain. They require sacrifice.

“Mask wearing, social distancing — you stay at home, you don’t get to do the fun things with your friends,” Bhanot said. “So you’re bearing a personal cost.”

And you don’t get an immediate reward. So in the math of behavioral economics, the cost outweighs the benefit when it comes to many campaigns for the greater good.

“It’s also hard to get people to recycle, and conserve energy, get vaccinated…. There’s no reason to think that mask wearing would be special.”

Gretchen Chapman, Carnegie Mellon decision science professor

“It’s also hard to get people to recycle, and conserve energy, get vaccinated,” Chapman of Carnegie Mellon said. “We are only partially successful at all of those behaviors. There’s no reason to think that mask wearing would be special.”

To her, the good news is that people do stick with a behavior if there’s an instant reward. We brush our teeth, likely because of that minty feeling after.

And just so you know, there are scented masks out there: peppermint and bubble-gum flavors.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s going on with extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

The latest: President Donald Trump signed an executive action directing $400 extra a week in unemployment benefits. But will that aid actually reach people? It’s still unclear. Trump directed federal agencies to send $300 dollars in weekly aid, taken from the federal disaster relief fund, and called on states to provide an additional $100. But states’ budgets are stretched thin as it is.

What’s the latest on evictions?

For millions of Americans, things are looking grim. Unemployment is high, and pandemic eviction moratoriums have expired in states across the country. And as many people already know, eviction is something that can haunt a person’s life for years. For instance, getting evicted can make it hard to rent again. And that can lead to spiraling poverty.

Which retailers are requiring that people wear masks when shopping? And how are they enforcing those rules?

Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, CVS, Home Depot, Costco — they all have policies that say shoppers are required to wear a mask. When an employee confronts a customer who refuses, the interaction can spin out of control, so many of these retailers are telling their workers to not enforce these mandates. But, just having them will actually get more people to wear masks.

You can find answers to more questions on unemployment benefits and COVID-19 here.

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