We’re Trying To Get People To Wear Masks The Wrong Way

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The words “please wear a face mask” is on almost every sign that’s posted in the windows of grocery stores, hair salons, and shops.

In many places it’s now mandatory to wear a mask and while the a lot people have embraced the new norm, in some parts of the U.S., the requirement to put on a mask has brought about political protests, arrests and violence. In fact, a security guard in Michigan was killed after telling a customer to put on a mask.

And a lot of it comes down to how things are communicated.

There’s been plenty of critique on the inconsistencies of messaging from public health officials and how that’s made it harder to get people to start wearing a mask.

And while bad messaging from higher ups definitely hasn’t helped, there are other factors at play.

As science journalist Lydia Denworth explained in Scientific American in order to make mask wearing the default standard “a new behavior must first ascend to the status of a social norm”.

And while it’s not always easy to create a social norm, it’s not impossible either.

“Social norms can change rapidly,” social psychologist Catherine Sanderson of Amherst College told Scientific American in an interview, “and it doesn’t take everybody.”

For example, in an online experiment published in Science researchers found that in order to change social norms you just need 25% of people to be on board.

“When a community is close to a tipping point to cause large-scale social change, remarkably, just by adding one more person, and getting above the 25% tipping point, their efforts can have rapid success in changing the entire population’s opinion.,” explained lead author and associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania Damon Centola.

Conversely, if it’s below the 25% the efforts fail.

However, even once mask wearing becomes a social norm research has shown that social norms only influence behavior when it’s activated at the moment of the behavioural decision.

As psychology and marketing professor at Arizona State University, Robert Cialdini, and colleagues concluded in one study: “under naturally occurring conditions, if there is no salience, behavior will be largely unguided by normative considerations. […] It is misguided to expect that because norms are constantly in place within a person or culture, they are constantly in force”. 

In other words, only when someone’s attention is focused on that norm when deciding what to do will they revert to the social norm. In psychology this is known as the focus theory of normative conduct.

So if we apply the theory to today’s issue of wearing a mask it seems obvious that we need to make sure people are focused on mask wearing every time they need to make that decision.

And probably the easiest way to do that is through signs or in more scientific terms – normative messages.

Normative messages have been shown to promote pro-social behavior like increasing voter turnout, reducing energy use, and decreasing littering.

But even though most places have signs that tell people to wear a mask, the seemingly innocuous phrasing of “please wear a face mask’ could be part of the reason why we’re having such a hard time getting people to adopt the behavior.

You would think that just by having the sign there people would cue in and wear the mask but it turns out how the sign is worded can have a big impact on whether or not people do something.

In 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service conducted a study looking at how people responded to national parks signs. There were four message variations – both positive and negative– to get people to stay on the marked trails.

For example, one sign might read: “Please stay on the established paths and trails, in order to protect the sequoias and natural vegetation in this park.” While in another instance the sign read: “Please don’t go off the established paths and trails, in order to protect the sequoias and natural vegetation in this park.”

When they looked at which sign was most effective at getting people stay on the marked paths, they found that it was better to tell people not to go off the trail than to stay on it.

A similar study was done to see which sign messaging would be most effective at deterring theft of petrified wood at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Again the researchers found that the least theft occurred in the presence of the sign presenting desired behavior in negative terms, such as “Please don’t remove the petrified wood in the park”. 

So it seems that if we want to change society’s behavior when it comes to mask wearing we might just need to change how we word the signs.

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