Guest Columnist

Mask proponents are reinforcing the behavior they're trying to change

Too many articles and social posts focus on those not wearing mask instead of the majority who are

A sign requiring masks for all customers inside a restaurant. (Ashley Duong/The Union)
A sign requiring masks for all customers inside a restaurant. (Ashley Duong/The Union)

I spend my professional time thinking about how decisions are made. If we’re being transparent, I probably spend a fair amount of my personal time thinking about it as well. Behavioral science/design plays a big part in how businesses market to consumers and other businesses and create better, more effective campaigns, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how a particular behavioral design tactic — “social proof,”—could change how we begin to gain wider adoption of important COVID-19 precautions in the midst of a pandemic that is tightening its grip on the Midwest.

Information changes quickly. When I began writing this column, Gov. Kim Reynolds had not yet enacted any mask requirements. Now that some requirements are in place, there still is the matter of getting the public to understand and adopt precautions, whether it is wearing masks, or limiting or canceling gatherings outside of your household, or taking simple personal measures such as avoiding touching your face and washing hands frequently.

When it comes to the subject of mask-wearing in particular, media articles and social posts tend to focus on those not wearing masks, or politicians arguing for or against a mask mandate. This column is not about ordinances or requirements. This column addresses the fact that when we develop the narrative around the story of the few, we end up with the unintended effect of validation of the behavior we are seeking to change.

We’ve all seen, and possibly even shared, posts about people not wearing masks. Many of these posts are sensational — sparking flame wars in the comments — and drive deeper wedges between two entrenched sides. Or perhaps we’ve seen or shared viral videos of a store clerk confronting a patron who refuses to wear a mask. You have to admit that makes for very watchable content. No matter which side of the debate you come down on, you think “Yeah, THEY told THEM!”

There is a principle in behavioral science called “social proof” and right now mask proponents are reinforcing the exact behavior that they are trying to change. Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon wherein people copy the actions of others in an attempt to undertake behavior in a given situation. You might call it “subliminal peer pressure.”

I don’t have statistics on the percentage of locals who effectively wear masks in public, but anecdotally, when I go to a store the majority of people I see are wearing them in compliance with the store’s policies. Seeing other people in masks doesn’t fire my brain up to take notice, but seeing one person among 20 (5 percent) in a store without one, (or with it hanging under their nose) does. We’re wired to look for threats and for the things that stand outside the norm. But we are also wired to make decisions based on what we see modeled by the majority.

Case in point: a front-page story in The Gazette on Nov. 16 focused on the nonchalant attitudes around mask-wearing of some people in the Midwest. This was an Associated Press story and focused on quotes from people who feel that if they contract the virus, then they do, and they aren’t overly concerned about it.

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I imagine some readers were upset by these attitudes. And there were others who thought, “That’s how I feel too.” It was neutral reporting at best, without any statistics estimating how many people do or do not wear masks in a public setting, in the Midwest or beyond. The article also focused on those gathering with others despite the threat of the virus but did not dig into the number of people who have adjusted or canceled their plans.

It’s not the media’s job to push a narrative. But when we look at how we approach public health through a behavioral science lens, we see messages that are focused on restrictions and telling people what they cannot do. It is important to explicitly warn people of behaviors that are dangerous to the public. However, by focusing mostly on those who are not taking precautions we give people the excuse to not mask up because they see the main narrative as “most people do not want to or take part in wearing a mask in public.” We can all identify with that. No one enjoys wearing a mask. But if we change the narrative to show the actual (or close to it) masking rate, we can change that perception.

Example: “80 percent of people in Linn & Johnson Counties properly wear their mask in public.” Now suddenly there is social proof and pressure that not wearing a mask is the minority viewpoint.

My suggestion to our community leaders, to those who are active on social media, and to those who have and share influence, is to join others in flipping the script. Instead of admonishing the public for not wearing a mask when the majority are, gather data that reinforces the behavior. Thank and highlight those who exemplify it, and push that messaging far and wide, and back it up with language and campaigns. If we pull together in this endeavor, we will quickly change how people see this issue, and themselves. More importantly, we will save lives.

Jen Neumann is CEO of de Novo Marketing in Cedar Rapids.

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