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Supporting the Development of a New Norm - Mask Wearing

Updated: May 26, 2020

We are in need of a new set of norms around wearing masks in public. Mask wearing has already been established as a norm in many East Asian countries for a variety of purposes - epidemics, air pollution, flu season as well as coping with allergies. Masks have come to symbolize solidarity and are perceived as a collective responsibility, especially with the saliency of epidemics such as SARS.

There are several beliefs that have delayed the adoption and adherence of mask wearing. There is stigma attached to wearing a mask as it implies that the wearer is sick with a transmittable disease. Some believe that obscuring identity through wearing a mask creates mistrust because it is seen as an unnecessary and untrustworthy barrier between persons. Often times the barriers that individuals report for not adopting new behaviors (such as wearing masks in public) are rationalizations, while the bigger issue tends to be a lack of intent. Similar to what has occurred in East Asian countries, norms and social proof are very strong tools for building individual intent. These individual rationalizations may began to fade as they internalize the norm.

Unfortunately, inconsistent messaging has hindered the progress needed towards transitioning mask wearing in public as the new norm. As we move forward, the norm may need to be built piecemeal in a staggered manner, such as beginning with well enforced mandatory mask usage while utilizing public transportation, and then extending elsewhere.

We all need to quickly adopt mask wearing as a new norm in order to continue and sustain the fight against COVID-19. As the messaging suggests, we are indeed 'all in this together' and this is necessary in the development of mask wearing as a norm. If this does not become the universal norm and is enforced selectively, there is the risk that mask usage could be perceived as a marker of infection or high risk behavior, leading to stigma.

What Works:

  • Utilize Dynamic Messaging - Dynamic framing, such as ‘Many area stores are already….’ and ‘Join in with your neighbors….’, communicate actions people are currently taking which provides a signal that change is already occurring at a local level. No one wants to be left out of the crowd.

  • Identify and capacitate ‘Social Referents', informal/formal local social leaders (e.g. religious leaders, community leaders), to disseminate the message of adoption of mask wearing as this has been shown to support the development of a new norm.

  • Leverage Loss Aversion - As many countries are beginning to transition out of shelter in place orders and lockdowns, messages around mask wearing can be framed as actions taken now (i.e. everyone wearing masks as areas are re-opening) at an individual current cost, if done correctly and by all, will prevent a larger cost (i.e. another lockdown) in the future.

  • Utilize Specificity in Action - Define specific actions for the individual around mask usage that can clarify uncertainty and inconsistent messaging (e.g. Save medical grade masks for healthcare workers; Wear a homemade mask in public in addition to social distancing and hand-washing; Encourage others to adopt mask usage). Additionally, supply easily actionable means for procuring masks and even how to provide masks for others (i.e. locations to purchase, instructions for DIY masks).

  • Leverage solidarity while simultaneously allowing for the expression of individuality within the design of masks - masks have been created in a plethora of ways that allow for self expression with customized phrases, team support, hobbies, imagery, etc.

What to Avoid:

  • Be aware of negative implications that this new norm may have on particular populations and provide messaging and policy interventions that prevent these types of negative experiences (i.e. In the US, African-American men have experienced racial profiling while wearing masks in public).

  • Be aware of the cost/negative impact of wearing masks for some individuals as this becomes the norm (e.g. mask monetary costs are out of reach for some individuals) and make attempts to mitigate these through coping mechanisms and no-cost or minimal cost masks provided where they are required.

  • Avoid supporting or condoning acts of aggression or threats against those that have yet to adopt the new norm of wearing a mask in public.

Who is this most useful to:

  1. Public Health Experts

  2. Influencers and Leaders

  3. Media and communication professionals


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