How we will encourage folks to put on masks – for the sake of others

Governors, mayors and public health officials are alarming about rising Covid-19 levels in all parts of the country. The disease is on the rise, the death toll is rising, and it is clear that some states need more restrictive measures to control the spread.

What continues to frustrate so many executives is that nine months after this pandemic, science and data have shown a clear path to how to beat the virus and reduce transmission. But the disappointing and deadly truth is that in many cases it is difficult to get Americans to follow the rules.

Backed by a rule-breaking president who deliberately defies science and established norms of courtesy, millions of Americans have blatantly violated simple prompts not to wear masks in public, not to gather in large groups, or their unnecessary travel to restrict. Since the rule-setters themselves publicly disregarded the recommendations of experts and scientists in their own administration, the Americans who violated the rules quickly followed suit.

The US happens to love rule breakers. The ethos of breaking with tradition is in the DNA of our country. New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die”. Western states like Arizona are known to celebrate harsh individualism, the country’s founders are revered as rebels who opposed a demanding government, and even a reality TV star could be elected president.

In the event of a pandemic, however, the health authorities advocate a little more compliance. To smooth the curve, Americans must all take fairly uniform measures – wear masks, not collect – to improve society as a whole. There is no time to be reluctant to say what to do. President-elect Joe Biden has already signaled that, unlike President Trump, he intends to follow science and run a national 100-day campaign to wear masks. As we wait months for a vaccine to roll out to hundreds of millions of Americans, people must adhere to these and other public health recommendations if there is any hope of fighting the virus. But will they?

While it seems unlikely that Biden and public health officials can really encourage many more Americans to obey rules, there are ways we can bring Americans together to support compliance. This, in turn, could help get Americans through the final months of the pandemic, which saw tens of thousands fewer deaths.

It is important to think carefully about the message as there is more than one type of compliance. The type we think of the most – self-focused compliance – describes measures that have been taken to fit into a group. (This can also be conspicuous inactivity, such as some Trump supporters refusing to wear masks.)

However, my research with associate Matthew Wice, Assistant Professor of Psychology at SUNY New Paltz, looks at the conformity of others, what we call “benevolent conformity,” and shows how following norms or rules can benefit others.

In one study, we asked more than 300 participants to think about a time when they saw someone adapt to their group. Some participants were asked to ponder a case in which someone adjusted because they wanted others to like them. Others were asked to ponder a time when someone would adjust for the sake of others. We then asked all of our participants to share what they thought of this person whose public behavior was different from their private beliefs. Did this person have a strong moral character? Were they competent people? Were you nice and kind?

While the participants in our research made fun of conformity when it was viewed as selfish, they respected and valued benevolent conformity and viewed it as brave and commendable. Our experiments have shown that Americans find people who adapt to protect other people’s feelings or to maintain group harmony warmer, more competent, and more authentic.

This is an important lesson for Biden and for governors looking to enforce compliance to protect people from a deadly virus. You should emphasize that compliance sometimes takes courage. This point should be made clear: In the fight against Covid-19, it is brave and laudable to put other people first.

So when the idea is presented that following Covid-19 safety measures is “weak” or “un-American”, public health experts should turn that argument on its head: Emphasize the benefits of people’s helpful actions. Wherever possible, leaders must apply the benevolent conformity that Americans seem to tend towards and respect.

Emphasizing a strong sense of shared identity can remind Americans that the real reason for security in place is not just to conform, but to protect the group they belong to. If following simple security measures can save tens of thousands of Americans’ lives, wearing a mask is not blind obedience but patriotism. With the use of vaccines (with vaccine reluctance still being high) and the pandemic reaching new heights, this type of messaging is becoming more and more urgent to get us back on track.

Our research makes one thing clear: Americans love rule breakers, but they also have a special place in their hearts for benevolent, other-minded rule breakers. If 2020 has shown us something, we sometimes have to adapt for the sake of others.

Shai Davidai is an Assistant Professor in the Management Department at Columbia Business School with expertise in judgment and decision psychology, economic inequality and social mobility, social comparison, and zero-sum thinking. As a social psychologist, his research examines people’s everyday judgments about themselves, other people, and society as a whole.

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