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MIT Sloan research reveals the effect of mask wearing on everyday behaviors in China


Masks are a moral symbol in China that reduces wearers’ deviant behavior by heightening their moral awareness.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 4, 2022 – Since the outbreak of COVID-19, mask wearing has become a global phenomenon. Because masks reduce the spread of COVID-19, most research has centered on the predictors of mask wearing, such as the cultural value of collectivism (vs. individualism). Meanwhile, little is known about the psychological and behavioral consequences of mask wearing: How do masks influence wearers’ behavior in everyday life? 

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by, Sloan School Career Development Associate Professor in Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Lesley Luyang Song and Yuhuang Zheng at School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, and Laura Changlan Wang at the MIT Sloan School of Management, examines the effect of masks on wearers’ deviant behavior in China—e.g., running a red light, bike parking in no-parking zones, cheating for money, deviant behavior in the library—where mask wearing is mostly a public health issue rather than a political issue during COVID-19.

The researchers tested two competing hypotheses. One hypothesis is that masks may disinhibit wearers’ deviant behavior by increasing their sense of anonymity. When individuals feel anonymous, they may be less concerned about projecting a positive self-image or about being caught when behaving deviantly. 

The second, competing hypothesis is that masks may be a moral symbol that reduces wearers’ deviant behavior by heightening their moral awareness. In China, masks are not only widely accepted as a preventative measure, but may also be viewed as a moral symbol: Masks symbolize the moral duty and virtue of protecting others and sacrificing one’s personal convenience for the collective good. Thus, when an individual wear a mask, they may experience heightened moral awareness and thus, refrain from behaving deviantly. 

Through 10 studies (N = 68,243) using mixed methods (e.g., traffic camera recording analysis, observational field studies, online experiments, natural field experiment) and different measures of deviant behavior, the researchers consistently found support for the second hypothesis: Compared to non-mask wearers, mask wearers in China are less likely to behave deviantly due to heightened moral awareness. 

Lu notes: “To understand the generalizability of our findings, future studies should examine other countries. For example, our observed effects may not occur in places where masks are viewed as a symbol of infringement on personal freedom rather than a moral symbol.”

This research provides timely and valuable contribution to better understand the psychological and behavioral consequences of mask wearing. By encouraging mask wearing during the pandemic, policymakers may indirectly raise citizens’ moral awareness in some places. More broadly, the current research underscores the importance of understanding the psychological spillover effects of public health policies such as mask wearing.

“The meaning of masks is dynamic and contextualized. As the pandemic develops, the behavioral and psychological consequences of mask wearing may change over time,” says Song.

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