We Can Convince Mask Holdouts by Using the Right Messages and Messengers

Despite more than 135,000 Americans dying of COVID-19 thus far, an alarming number proportion of people in this country – 35 percent — still don’t consistently wear masks in public, or at all, according to a Pew Research Poll. More local governments are rolling out mask mandates, yet these can be contentious. 

We need to take a step back and ask, Who are these holdouts, and how do we persuade them?

It’s easy to dismiss mask-wearing as a partisan issue: The same Pew poll found nearly 76 percent of Democrats reported wearing masks to the store, versus 53 percent of Republicans. Yet focusing solely on politics overlooks the half of Republicans who are wearing masks, and the quarter of Democrats who are not. It ignores the many other factors that influence people’s behavior from internal perceptions. 

A Surgo Foundation survey conducted in the early days of the pandemic, which explored why people did or did not adopt coronavirus-prevention behaviors such as social distancing, has important implications for encouraging widespread mask use today. Beyond just politics, we found other factors that predicted whether people would comply with social distancing requirements. These factors included how dangerous a person thought COVID-19 was, whether they perceived everyone in their community was also doing social distancing, and how much they felt their own actions toward preventing COVID-19 mattered. 

Our study identified four types of “social distancers,” each motivated by different behavioral drivers. The group who had the lowest rate of social distancing had a trifecta of low risk perception, low perceptions of community norms and little belief that their actions could impact the spread. The good news about this finding is that it’s relatively easy to change these perceptions, while changing more in-grained beliefs like political views is much more difficult.

It all comes down to leveraging behavioral science principles with three key messages:

Emphasize that “everyone is doing it.” Instead of continuing to cover “Costco Karen” or Sen. Ted Cruz and others who don’t wear masks in public, media outlets and public figures should give more airtime to the many who do wear masks. Our social media platforms can also help. For example, Instagram’s “Stay Home” filter was immensely successful in showcasing the popularity of social distancing; brands like Instagram and others should take a similar approach with ‘Wear a Mask.’ 

Businesses and community organizations can do their part, too, with simple approaches such as adding signage and including important messages about wearing masks in their own marketing materials. Community leaders must also consistently model mask-wearing behavior, as research shows a person’s perception of the norms within their community influences their own actions.

Focus on what happens if you don’t wear a mask. Rather than shaming people who don’t wear masks, the media should focus on stories that capture what’s at stake, like what happens to people who contract COVID-19 after not wearing masks and the physical, emotional, financial and other kinds of tolls it can take.

Highlight the impact of what one person can do to stop the spread of COVID. People need to believe their own actions can make a difference. They can be convinced, through stories shared by the media and public health officials about how a single person can transmit the virus to so many others or simple graphics showing the exponential impact of COVID spread.

To be sure, some of these approaches are indeed being used, but our research uncovered another important lesson: information channels and messengers matter. We found that the type of person least likely to adopt preventive behaviors is generally not looking for information on how to stay safe. This type of person is more likely to be male and lean Republican. We must tap into messengers that this group — which presumably has some overlap with the proportion of Americans currently holding out on mask-wearing — can relate to. 

The trending hashtag #realmenwearmasks, and President Donald Trump’s recent mask-wearing photo op are positive examples, but more of this needs to happen. And in addition to politicians, we need non-traditional messengers, including country music stars, Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters, religious leaders and popular personalities like Joe Rogan to do their part.

If we are going to get those holdouts – that remaining one-third of Americans – to start to, and keep, wearing masks for the foreseeable future, we must double our efforts. This includes critical mask mandates and free masks for the public. These policies can be complemented with targeted interventions to specific segments of the population like those we found. And we will only be successful by using the right messages with the right messengers.

Hannah Kemp is director of programs at Surgo Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses behavioral science, data science and artificial intelligence to improve and save lives.

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