Updated: May 21, 2020
A lot of mixed messaging around mask usage has led to a lot of confusion on the ground about whether masks are effective in safeguarding people from exposure to the virus. But with countries largely moving away from the WHO directive and strongly pushing for mask usage, there is a need to find the correct message framing to address motivation and the effort needed to wear masks.
Image courtesy: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
Review of existing literature suggests that East Asian countries fare much better than Western countries in terms of a protective behaviour like mask usage. An examination of the reasons which have led to making this behaviour stick points us towards social solidarity based messages anchored to concepts of altruism and responsibility.
What has worked?
Past evidence shows us that messaging around 'not spreading the disease' has worked better than 'not acquiring the disease'. This has allowed for communication to be tied to social responsibility along the lines of 'I look out for you and you look out for me'.
- Masks were projected as a sign of mutual assurance for the public to keep the society functional. The messaging allowed masks to be used as a commitment device for the population at large, so that they could gradually ease into regular life post social distancing measures in past epidemic scenarios.
- Masks were projected as a sign of being more alert and more medically aware to deal with an epidemic, thus appealing to a common identity of the people.
- Appealing to the altruism of people and appealing to their responsibility has been seen to work in countries like Japan. The social norms around protective health behaviours disgust associated with openly coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose led to mask usage becoming a socially desirable behaviour with strong social sanctions for non-adherence.
What might be tweaked/improved?
- The social responsibility and altruism based messaging might be more effective in collectivist societies like Japan. In more individualist societies, the messaging could be anchored to personal safety and creating a risk protection ritual.
- The social solidarity anchor can be transferred from the community or country, to smaller in-groups so that the behaviour continues even when the risk availability decreases. (Higher social solidarity could be salient in times of crisis and might start diffusing as the risk decreases)