How do you get people to start wearing masks? : Planet Money Why won't some people wear masks? Is there anything we can do to convince them? We look to behavioral economics for help. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Mask Communication

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Usually, when we as humans are faced with a big problem and someone offers us a simple solution, we're like, thank you so much, and we just do that thing. And in this huge problem we're collectively facing right now, this pandemic, we've been trying some complicated solutions - lockdowns, complicated; vaccines, hard to produce. But one very simple solution has somehow become controversial - just a small piece of cloth that you wear on your face.


Masks - so simple, achievable. In fact, if we all wore masks, Goldman Sachs says that alone could avert $1 trillion in economic loss by preventing future lockdowns. More importantly, health experts say masks could save 33,000 lives by just October, a whole stadium of lives saved.

DUFFIN: If enough of us wear them. We are in the group project of our lives that we pass or fail based on participation. But not everyone wants to participate. Like, some people just won't wear them. Other people don't even believe that they work. So as we approach Month 9 of this pandemic, it might be a good moment to just step back, not to finger-point, not to judge, just to ask with true curiosity and maybe a dose of humility, why don't some people wear masks, and is there anything we can do to convince them?

CHILDS: We actually have some good news. There's an entire field of economists who study exactly this type of conundrum. Why do humans sometimes choose not to do things that are in their own best interests? Mask-wearing is kind of in the collective best interest, but in a pandemic, that distinction becomes blurred really fast.

DUFFIN: That's right, behavioral economists. You know, the people who design those nudges, the small interventions that guide people towards different behavior.

CHILDS: Behavioral economists have helped America smoke less, save more for retirement, practice safer sex and drink and drive less. Can they help us resolve this mask conundrum, too?


CHILDS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Mary Childs.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Today on the show, behavioral economists help us figure out how to encourage people to do this small thing that could do such big good.

CHILDS: We also speak with an expert who helped Heineken tackle a different intractable problem, drinking and driving, by using nachos. And we commission our very own behavioral economist-designed wear-a-mask public service announcements with some new friends of the show who you just might recognize.

DUFFIN: OK, so nudges, those small interventions that behavioral economists use to redirect behavior to help people do stuff that's good for them that for whatever reason they're just not doing.

CHILDS: Nudges can be incredibly powerful. Take retirement, for example. Instead of requiring employees to opt in to a 401(k), which a lot of people just don't do, behavioral economists suggested companies should opt you in to saving for your retirement automatically. And most employees just never opt out, so they end up saving a lot more.

DUFFIN: To figure out how to nudge people towards wearing a mask, we called up Syon Bhanot. He's a behavioral economist at Swarthmore.

SYON BHANOT: Unfortunately, I think you've hit on the central question of our time, right? Why are people resistant to pro-social behavior?

DUFFIN: That's the first question, why? And Syon says there are many things about a pandemic that just make it hard for the human brain to fully grasp.

CHILDS: For starters, salience, which is behavioral-economist-speak for, even if we have facts and data, that's not what usually moves us to action.

BHANOT: When people are faced with uncertainty, which I think we all are, we look around us. We kind of grasp for things in our environment that can help us make sense of the uncertainty and resolve it to some extent.

DUFFIN: Instead of data, often, we will look to the things that we can see and touch and feel right in front of us for guidance and answers.

CHILDS: Which is partly why you see these pockets all over the country where in one pocket everyone is always wearing a mask and in another pocket people are wearing masks less.

BHANOT: One of the challenges here with COVID is, you know, the cues that you're getting are not, you know, that it's this devastating disease, per se. Most of us walk around our neighborhoods, and people don't - you know, aren't falling down on the street and aren't ambulances all over the place.

DUFFIN: Right. Like when I was in New York during the worst of the pandemic, I was surrounded by sirens and this suddenly eerily shuttered New York City. Like, the pandemic was in my face constantly, so there was kind of no way that I would just forget my mask.

But then a few months into the pandemic, once we were allowed to travel, I went to Utah to be with my family in an area where there were maybe a hundred cases at the time. And as soon as I got off the plane, I was like, oh, this is an entirely different pandemic experience. Like, no sirens, just a few masks, people kind of hanging out.

And then, within just a few weeks, I would go to the grocery store, and I would find myself being like, oh, wait; shoot, my mask. I left it in the car, and I was constantly having to run back and get it, which would've never happened in New York.

CHILDS: Another obstacle - we tend to take what we see in front of us in New York or Utah, and we apply it to everything like it. We overestimate how much of our personal experience is universal. We mistake the local for the national. This is called the law of small numbers.

DUFFIN: We also struggle to grasp large numbers, especially exponential growth. Our brains hear something like, there's only 12 cases in town. And the idea that that could be - I don't know - 12,000 in just a month is just so wild that it's hard to grasp.

CHILDS: And Syon says if we do spot a problem, we often suffer from what's called optimism bias, which is the, yeah, yeah, no, it's a problem, but it won't happen to me fallacy.

DUFFIN: And these aren't usually conscious beliefs. They usually go unspoken and probably unnoticed by us while subconsciously driving our actions. Somewhere in the back of your head, something whispers, I don't know. I don't see people flooding my local hospital, and I'm pretty healthy. Do I really need to wear a mask?

CHILDS: The problem, of course, is that by the time you can see the impact of the virus, you're already in huge trouble.

DUFFIN: And as corners of America that were still untouched by the virus started getting lectures from urban America, where the virus was already raging, Syon says this kind of finger-wagging sparked what's called psychological reactance.

BHANOT: Which is that when people perceive external constraints on their freedom coming from the outside, they are prone to push back against those constraints.

DUFFIN: It's sort of like what happens when - I don't know - like, your sister asks you to wash the dishes. And even if you were just about to do them, suddenly not washing the dishes is now the hill you will die on. It's like that but, like, for a whole country.

CHILDS: Except in this case, the sister is anyone on the other side of your own politics. Masks have become this politicized symbol, a way to signal in-group identity. Instead of debating the health or the science, for some, it's become a debate over individual rights. A few studies show that while more than three-quarters of Americans support mask-wearing, the people who resist masks the most cite personal freedom as their reason.

BHANOT: So if you walk up to someone not wearing a mask and yell at them, which I think a lot of people are feeling like they want to do when they see these folks, that can entrench them even more, right? That can make them even more resistant to the behavior change. So, you know, I certainly think that's one thing I would suggest that we not do.

DUFFIN: So yelling at people or rage tweeting pictures of people without masks - that might be effective at making you feel good about yourself, but it might not be the most effective way to get everyone to put on a mask.

CHILDS: So we asked Syon, does behavioral economics have any suggestions for what we should do? When behavioral economists design nudges to help us act in our own best interests, there is one big motivator that's particularly powerful, especially when they're trying to get us to act in the best interest of the collective, like wear a mask. Every community has norms. In the Amtrak Quiet Car, it's not talking. At the grocery, it's not removing produce from someone else's shopping cart. Or, like, when you're standing in any line, you just don't cut in line.

DUFFIN: And if someone gets out of line, we as a society have ways to deal with that. Other people intervene.

EREZ YOELI: When people don't abide by the norms, others nail them for it. That's called third-party punishment.

DUFFIN: This is Erez Yoeli. He's a behavioral economist at MIT.

YOELI: We need that. That's the way that we get good behavior in the first place. It's not a bad thing. That's the thing that's allowing us to thrive and cooperate and be altruistic towards each other, and that's great.

CHILDS: If you think about something like littering, yes, it's illegal, but mostly we don't do it in front of other people because we don't want to look like jerks.

DUFFIN: We humans care a lot about our reputations.

CHILDS: And that social pressure is extremely effective. We are so sensitive to how we're perceived that studies show if you draw little eyes on a tip jar, people are more likely to tip. It's actually way more likely. Just, like, little drawn eyes - not real eyes, but they are watching you, and it's enough to remind a person that they consider themselves a good person, one who tips.

DUFFIN: But starting a norm is like its own little science. And so to learn how to do that, we are going to take you to a bar at a time when COVID did not exist. We present to you the parable of the beer and the bartenders.

CHILDS: So Heineken had a problem. It's an age-old problem. It's as old as drinking and cars. People drink. They get in their cars. They drive home. And alcohol-related car crashes kill some 10,000 people in the United States every year - totally avoidable deaths. It's not always the driver who is killed or hurt; it's often random strangers who had no part in their choice to drink or not, yet they pay for it.

DUFFIN: So, like masks, it is a collective problem that we can only solve by changing individual behavior.

CHILDS: Heineken wanted to nudge people into drinking more responsibly, so they called up Helena Rubinstein, a behavioral science consultant in Cambridge, England, to help.

DUFFIN: Helena's first question for Heineken was, what do you mean by responsible drinking?

HELENA RUBINSTEIN: Heineken were really, really clear about what they wanted. They wanted people not to have anything at all to drink before they got into a car.

CHILDS: Zero beers. So her job is to get people to go to a bar and drink nothing at all - at least for anyone who is driving. And this is kind of not the norm in society, but Heineken basically wanted to establish within the micro community of this bar of this experiment a sort of new norm.

DUFFIN: So Helena started where all nudges start, by meeting people where they are, thinking realistically, nonjudgmentally about why people drink and drive.

RUBINSTEIN: That, in a way, is the most critical part of the entire process 'cause you really want to know what factors cause people to drink and drive and, therefore, what can you do to influence those factors?

CHILDS: That why is the lever you can pull to change behavior.

DUFFIN: Helena searched through the reams of academic data about drinking and driving. And the first obstacle she discovered was just knowledge.

RUBINSTEIN: First of all, people don't recognize that even very small amounts of alcohol - blood alcohol concentration can cause impaired driving. It slows your response times down.

CHILDS: But even when people do know the facts, they don't assess those facts very clearly, partly because of that optimism bias again. We tend to think data don't apply to specifically us.

RUBINSTEIN: Either they know the consequences, but they don't think it's ever going to happen to them, so I'm the sort of person who's been driving for 20 years, and I'm a safe driver.

DUFFIN: And we run into that law of small numbers again - that thing where we mistake anecdotes for actual statistics.

CHILDS: There's actually a saying, kind of almost a joke.


CHILDS: The plural of anecdote is not data. See? Get it?

DUFFIN: That kind of funny thing does turn into a kind of big problem, which is that we've probably all seen a few people drink and drive and get home just fine, which then leads us to conclude, I guess I'm fine, too. I'll have another.

CHILDS: But the most obvious obstacle that Helena saw was peer pressure.

RUBINSTEIN: When you're out with friends, people don't set out to drink too much. But, you know, your friends will say, well, you know, why don't you have another one? You know, you're being a bit of a spoilsport if you don't join in.

DUFFIN: To overcome all of these obstacles of human nature, Helena's team essentially designed a new bar experience.

CHILDS: So say you're going out for a pint with your mates at one of these 10 pubs in the U.K. where they ran their pilot experiment.

DUFFIN: You walk into the bar, and there, you see some new signs. They say, in this bar, we support not drinking and driving. They're starting to let you know, hey, there's a new norm in town. Then you head to the bar, where you see your favorite bartender. You've been best friends forever. He knows all your secrets. And he leans in and says, hey, you want some free nachos?

CHILDS: The deal is you can have those nachos if you sign this pledge that you won't drink. This is from a video they made.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Free nachos - how do we get that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Just pledge that you aren't going to be drinking tonight. We have different offers for all your friends.


CHILDS: They interviewed some of the bar patrons about the new bar experience.

RUBINSTEIN: We said, if you're not going to drink and drive tonight, can you sign this little card, this little pledge form? And that - every time then you come to get something, you know, you will access these rewards.

DUFFIN: Obviously, this is not legally binding, but research shows that just making a person state a commitment feels binding.

CHILDS: And then to reinforce it, in some of the bars...

RUBINSTEIN: When they got pledges, they actually pinned them on the board in the bar so that other people could see. And that got even more pledges.

CHILDS: They're making the norm normal and celebrated. Now it's cool and fine to not drink. Of course, you wouldn't drink. And if you do drink, your friends eating those free nachos who just helped you pin your pledge to the board are probably going to be, like, wait, man; seriously?

DUFFIN: And Heineken also has another nudge to help make it not awkward for you to not drink.

RUBINSTEIN: We had to make nonalcoholic beverages more easy to see and buy, so not hiding them away under the counter or somewhere at the back, but putting big signs up around the bars and putting things actually on the bar tops.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It gives someone the confidence to remain alcohol-free when they drive and yet still feel included.

DUFFIN: The pledge, the nachos, the nonalcoholic drinks - all these nudges add up.

CHILDS: But without making you feel coerced or harshing your vibe.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What I liked about the whole sort of concept - it wasn't forcing it down your neck. It was still your decision.

DUFFIN: And all of this seemed to work.

RUBINSTEIN: What we found was that in the bars that followed the protocols well, we saw as much as a 50% decrease in drinking and driving from one week to the other.

CHILDS: They replicated the experiment in Brazil, Russia, New Zealand and got basically the same results. The magic of these little nudges helped to mitigate an intractable collective problem.

DUFFIN: OK, but can these same kinds of nudges also work magic on mask-wearing? After the break, behavioral economists take a crack at it, and so do we. We commission our very own PLANET MONEY wear-a-mask public service announcement.


DUFFIN: OK, so we decided that we wanted to try our hand at this changing behavior thing. We decided to commission our very own PSAs that would encourage the norm of mask-wearing. Behavioral economists had been so helpful in teaching us why this norm has been so hard to establish, so we asked if they could also help us figure out how to, like, hit restart and try to communicate this norm effectively from here on out.

CHILDS: First thing they told us - vague norms don't work. You have to make it unambiguous. Erez Yoeli again from MIT.

YOELI: The answer to the question of whether you are abiding by the norm should always be yes or no.

DUFFIN: Like at the bar, like, they didn't say what people usually say, like, please don't exceed - I don't know - 0.08 blood alcohol level. I mean, like, who knows how many beers equals 0.08? You have to do this elaborate math. So people often just revert to, I don't know, I feel OK to drive. Instead, in the experiment, they asked, did you drink? That is a yes or no question. It's unambiguous.

CHILDS: Which sounds kind of obvious, but this is one of the things that got most messed up with masks. At first, it was, don't wear them. And then it was, only N95s work. And then it was, I don't know - do you have, like, a ratty T-shirt you could tie to your face?

DUFFIN: (Laughter).

CHILDS: And then there was mixed messaging about when to wear a mask - like, every time you open your front door or just at the grocery?

DUFFIN: Look; we got so many mixed messages. And all of that made it hard to know what you should personally do, much less what norm we should be trying to enforce with other people. Like, should I be mad if you're not wearing a mask in the park?

CHILDS: Syon is working on the norm for his college. He's suggesting, OK, just say if you're not in your dorm, wear a mask. That also helps because it's concise. If you give someone a laundry list, chances are they'll forget it, or they'll be oh, I did, like, 4 out of 7. I'm good.

DUFFIN: So let's say you've clearly established a norm.

CHILDS: That brings us to the second tip. Syon says the messenger matters. Research shows that in times of uncertainty, people lean particularly hard on their social circles for information.

DUFFIN: The messenger should be somebody that the community respects, preferably someone local. And we know this is another tip that also sounds obvious. But it is also something we kind of screwed up in the pandemic. Like, let's say you're in middle America, getting a lecture from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo - probably not very effective.


ANDREW CUOMO: This is serious. What right do you have to act irresponsibly? And then I have to send an ambulance to pick you up and bring you to an emergency room that's already overburdened because you were reckless and irresponsible. You don't have that right.

CHILDS: Totally great for New Yorkers, less great for, say, Virginia, where I am. It just sounds kind of rude. Here, it's probably going to generate some of that reactance, like, thank you for your input.

DUFFIN: To be more effective, you probably want someone like that bartender. Like, you know him. You like him. He's definitely not a buzzkill. Like, he's basically the governor of that pub. And for masks, maybe you want the message to come from local doctors and nurses or - I don't know - Betty White to remind people that, oh, right, old people like my grandparents are at risk.

CHILDS: Or for kids going back to school this fall, maybe Big Bird.


CAST OF SESAME STREET: (Singing) C means cover. Cover your face. Wear a mask in a public place. A is for...

CHILDS: Tip 3, kind of related, localize the message. Syon says take Montana. They put out these pictures of people wearing masks in very Montana-ey ways. The ad said...

BHANOT: We here in Montana wear masks. There's pictures of people hunting with their mask on, you know, like the hunting masks that people wear. And then they had pictures of people skiing. You know, it said when you ski, you wear a mask. When you hunt, you wear a mask. Essentially saying this is not that different of an environment, right? It's just another scenario where you need to please wear a mask.

DUFFIN: Lastly, using emotion is very helpful, except when it gets too far. There's a point at which it becomes not so helpful. Like, you probably do want to instill some fear of the virus. But research shows that if you make people too scared with no sense that they can actually solve the problem, sometimes, they just kind of get paralyzed and don't act.

CHILDS: Same goes for anger and shaming. Some shaming helps reinforce the norm, but too much provokes reactance and resistance.

DUFFIN: So make it clear. Localize the message. Deliver it from a trusted messenger. And use emotion but carefully.

CHILDS: Now, those are tips for messaging norms in general but, like we said earlier, this issue has its own special challenges. It's become politicized, tied to identity, rights, freedom.

DUFFIN: So we took all of this behavioral economics wisdom, and we went out to Times Square to talk to a freedom-loving cowboy.

ROBERT BURCK: (Singing) And I'm the naked cowboy. Keeping it real for you. I'm the naked cowboy. You got to do what you got to do.

Hey, everybody. I'm Robert Burck, better known as the naked cowboy. I'm in Times Square. I usually just wear my underwear, boots, hat and my guitar. But nowadays, I'm wearing a mask. If you put your hand in front of your mouth and talk, you can tell a lot of stuff comes out. I mean, it's common sense. It helps. Even if you don't want to wear a mask 'cause you're a big Trumpster - I'm a real Trumpster, but I still say, come on. It's not a big imposition to wear a mask. You know, you just - people actually are concerned about this. Just do it for them. Come on. That's what's called crossing the aisle because we're all in this together.

(Singing) Trump's taking those regulations off the backs of those corporations, sounds like a good idea to me.

Hey, I'm going to get cut off NPR for this.

DUFFIN: That was excellent, naked cowboy. We would never cut that off. Thank you.

CHILDS: Did he just write that on the spot? I mean, is that like a - is that what he does?

And next, if you are trying to reach people who are motivated by love of family, we are honored to have a word from America's mom, wife of Peter, mother of Stewie and Chris, close personal friend of Frank Sinatra Jr.'s friend Brian and headliner of "Family Guy."


ALEX BORSTEIN: (As Lois Griffin) Hi, I'm Lois Griffin, proud wife, full-time mother and one-time mayor of Quahog. Two of those things are true. Now I understand that you have been out and about not wearing your mask (laughter). What are you doing? Seriously, what are you doing? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. The sooner you wear your mask, the sooner this thing will be over, and we can get back to business as usual. Now come on. If I can do it, you can do it. I got all my kids wearing one, even Meg. I know this pandemic has made us all feel crazy. We feel alone. We crave human touch. We crave animal touch. Peter misses his chicken fights so much, we bought him a bucket of KFC, and we just let him pound it with his fists. And then we ate it. Now come on. Wear your mask. Let people live, huh? Take care of each other. Life is sacred, baby. Let's do this thing.

CHILDS: I'm pretty pleased. I think we're doing good.

DUFFIN: We have given you all of the tips that we can. And now we want you to go out and make your own PSAs and send them to us. We're We're also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok at @planetmoney. We also made our very own special TikTok PSA about masks. Please check that out.

CHILDS: Extra special huge thanks to Kirker Butler, Alex Borstein and Laura Atkinson.

DUFFIN: Also Alison Buttenheim, Laura Stephens (ph), Piyush Tantia, Stacy Campbell, Jon Ebelt and Nancy Tomes.

CHILDS: Today's show was produced by James Sneed, with help from Autumn Barnes, and mixed by Neal Rauch. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

DUFFIN: If you liked today's episode or our PSAs - we're very proud of them - please send them to your friends. I'm Karen Duffin.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

DUFFIN: You're welcome.


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