The rise of mask shaming reveals the tricky science of social change

NurPhoto / WIRED

On May 25, a video was uploaded to Twitter showing a woman being hounded out of a supermarket in Staten Island for not wearing a mask. At least five other shoppers screamed, shouted and swore at her, with some even following her to the door to make sure she had left the building. At around the same time, in the same country, footage from clubs in Houston and Missouri showed hundreds of people drinking in the sun at a pool party, without a mask in sight.
The face mask debate has been a running feature of the coronavirus pandemic – with conflicting, often confusing reports from national governments and the World Health Organisation about whether people should wear them indoors only, outdoors as well, or not at all. Some countries, particularly those in Asia, already had a culture of people wearing masks when ill to avoid spreading germs, but for others putting on a mask was a wholly alien concept.


In some areas of the United States, you’re more likely to be harassed for wearing a mask rather than not wearing one: on May 23, the governor of North Dakota pleaded with his citizens not to abuse others for doing so. “If somebody wants to wear a mask, there should be no mask shaming,” he said, begging North Dakotans to dial up their “empathy and understanding”.
So how does a behaviour like mask wearing go from being a fringe position adopted only by a handful, to something that’s almost mandatory in polite society? And what can that process teach us about how to encourage pandemic-proof behaviours as the economy begins to open up and lockdown restrictions ease?
Changes in attitudes are partly due to the regulations and laws brought in by the government. Three months ago, going to get a haircut was the most normal thing in the world – now it’s virtually taboo. The British government belatedly introduced mandatory face covering rules for public transport on Monday June 15, and by 6PM that evening there was a woman on the six o’ clock news describing how she’d harangued a fellow passenger for not having a mask on.
In New York, where the maskless woman was hounded out of the store, masks have been mandatory for people outside their home in situations where they can’t maintain a physical distance of at least six feet. North Dakota, which is just one of a number of states where people have reported being shamed or abused for wearing masks, is one of only a handful of states that aren’t recommending that their residents wear masks in public (although many have said they can’t enforce such guidance legally).


But decades of social psychology research show that we also take behavioural cues from those around us, particularly when we’re entering a new environment for the first time. Psychologists break the reasons for conformity down into two main categories, which they call normative social influence (driven by a desire to be liked), and informational social influence (motivated by the desire to be right).
So if we’re not sure whether to wear a mask in the supermarket, we might look to others to guide our behaviour. Or, if we’re going somewhere where we know that people will judge us for wearing a mask, we might decide not to wear one, even if we think it’s the right thing to do.
A 2018 study from the University of Pennsylvania tried to identify the point at which large scale social changes go from being a fringe position to the norm, and settled on 25 per cent as the magic number for change. There is a tipping point around this level where adding a single extra voice to the minority group advocating for a social change seems to have a big difference – and the same could be true for mask wearing.
But it also depends on our social circle, and which groups we identify ourselves as being part of. We might not care about being ostracised by a certain group if we don’t see ourselves as part of it, according to sociologist Erich Goode. “Shame and ridicule are effective to the extent that you consider those who attempt to use it as part of your generic reference group,” he told Vice. “ I am like them, they feel that my behaviour is unacceptable and, to the extent that I value their opinion, their negative judgment about what I did is appropriate.”


In America, the decision to wear a mask has become tangled up into just another aspect of identity politics – Democrats are more likely to wear masks than Republicans, college graduates were more likely to wear one than those without a college degree.
“For progressives, masks have become a sign that you take the pandemic seriously and are willing to make a personal sacrifice to save lives,” wrote Politico recently. “On the right, where the mask is often seen as the symbol of a purported overreaction to the coronavirus, mask promotion is a target of ridicule, a sign that in a deeply polarised America almost anything can be politicised and turned into a token of tribal affiliation.”
This is one reason why shaming might not actually be the best way to get people to change their behaviour. Writing in The Atlantic, Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, draws a parallel with the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s – where advertising campaigns aimed at encouraging condom use were initially quite moralising and shaming, and failed to have the desired effect.
Instead, it might be better to rely on pre-existing group bonds to do the work for us. Scientists study the way that behaviours like mask wearing or hand washing spread across a population – anthropologist Mark Granovetter divides connections between people into strong ties and weak ties.
A disease like Covid spreads really quickly across both strong and weak ties – you can catch it from a stranger at an airport or a pub, for instance. But a behaviour like wearing a mask spreads better over strong ties – you’re more likely to wear one if all your friends are, for instance.
One of the challenges of getting people to adopt the new behaviours that will prevent a second wave will be trying to activate some of those weak ties via the use of social media, for example – if everyone you follow on Twitter is wearing a mask in their profile picture, you might be more likely to wear one outside. If you see members of the government on television not wearing masks, you might be less likely to put one on.
Activating weak ties could help encourage mask wearing without shaming – so that as lockdown eases, safe behaviours can start to spread more quickly than the virus.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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