To Mask or Not to Mask: A Behavioral Economics Perspective

As confusions, protests and uprisings soar on “to mask or not to mask”, we set out on an opinion survey asking people around us to share their experiences of adapting to the staple protection accessory of these unprecedented times and to figure out the real cost of ditching it.

I recently had my braces removed and can’t even flaunt my new perfect smile”, said a female respondent, when asked about why she dislikes wearing a protective face mask. Almost all the people shared how uncomfortable they felt with a mask on. “They fog up glasses, impede conversations by hiding facial expressions and muffled voices, make it harder to breathe, and are a big hassle to carry around every time.” Many also criticized them for being an added cost to their already mounting expenses.

The guidelines about wearing masks have been muddled and confusing. International agencies like the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) excluded healthy people from wearing masks too until they proved to curb spread from asymptomatic patients. [1.] One of the major reasons for this was the lack of proof supporting the effectiveness of masks in reducing the spread of the virus.

The recent trends have revealed that countries with pro-mask mandates had decelerated growth in death rates by almost 10 percentage points [2.] and were able to reinstate basic economic activity, preventing almost a 5% decline in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). [3] An unpublished study by scientists at Arizona State University found that wearing masks with just 20% efficacy can also cut mortality by 2-9% in New York, if enough people wore them. [4.]

Then why do people still not wear a cloth or surgical mask?

This irrationality can be explained through behavioral economics. At the heart of any pandemic is an individual trying to balance the perceived benefits and costs of engaging in self precaution. [5.] On the one hand, a person wants to enjoy the pleasure of outdoors without the discomfort of a mask, and the time and money spent on it, which has an immediate (but smaller) payoff. On the other hand, is the cost of not wearing a mask that is uncertain to evaluate, since not every mask-less excursion might result in contracting the virus. In this trade-off, a few individuals, guided by their present bias, choose to go mask-less because of the sooner payoff as compared to the larger but intangible payoff derived from taking precaution and staying healthy. [6.] The fear and uncertainty of the situation lead them to biased, sub-optimal decisions based on heuristics (i.e., mental shortcuts). What people fail to take into account are the large-scale implications of infecting people around them, increasing the burden on the public health system and economy because of the subsequent higher social costs. Individuals, who step out without a mask and expose themselves to the virus, force their choice on several others who wore a mask. Some youngsters forgo the mask because they are optimistic about not contracting the virus. On the contrary, some others do the same because they feel the virus is inevitable.

The government’s key for increasing public support in favor of masks is to balance the optimistic illusion and the ‘learned hopelessness of inevitability’ among people, so that community masking doesn’t result in people ignoring evidence-based measures like social distancing, sanitization and self- isolation. [7.]

Communicating the risks effectively through a single credible source can help to overcome citizens’ optimistic bias. In our survey, people overwhelmingly responded that wearing a mask makes them feel safer, and thought of it as an altruistic act. Masks should be marketed on these positive aspects, since studies have shown that gain-framed messaging is more effective in promoting preventive behavior. [8.] Second, the default option nudge can direct people towards long-term benefits. For example, along with the fine on leaving houses without masks on, installing low-cost mask dispensers or disposable mask baskets outside all public spaces, like offices, is a solution. Another respondent from our survey told us about his inability to afford good quality masks. To prevent mask norms from affecting marginalized communities, the government can subsidize good quality masks, donate, and encourage them to use sustainable and budget-friendly self-made cloth masks.

Most people genuinely want to keep their community safe, but adapting to a major shift in behavior is a reasonable challenge. In our study, a few people confessed fearing public shaming when not wearing a mask. We need to understand that trying to shame people to wear masks will only cement their resistance. When people’s needs and desires are supported and incorporated into public health through behavioral interventions, only then can a cooperative bond form and result in more effective pandemic management.

Face masks have practically become a metaphor for Covid-19. Researchers validate the protection face masks offer against respiratory illnesses. So, if continued, community masking is a practice that will positively impact public health in the long run. As put by our respondent, “If not my smile, at least people will finally notice the toil I put into achieving the perfectly winged eyeliner. That’s kind of a blessing in disguise.


Aparaajita Thakur

Aparaajita is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s in Economics from University of Delhi. She is a feminist who wishes to make an impact upon the world some day. Her idea of fun is dissecting movies over pizza.





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