How to Change Minds about Wearing Masks

I run with a mask on. I wear my mask for others’ safety, for the marginal safety it affords me, and to set an example. When I see people not wearing masks I want to speak out. But what should I say?

My goal is to be empathetic yet also educate those who need it – or perhaps motivate them? The challenge is really one of behavior change.

Behavior Change Methodologies

How do you convince someone to change their mind (and their behavior)? One option is to consider the reasons people are motivated to do things. Self-determination theory offers a framework for thinking about motivation in two ways:

  • extrinsic motivation, such as rewards, prizes, etc. If someone cares about my opinion, then I can motivate them to wear a mask by telling them it’s important to me. For a stranger I might offer a thumbs up, pass out stickers, or otherwise reinforce my approval. Of course, many strangers won’t care about my approval. 
  • intrinsic motivation, which connects to a person’s core values. Intrinsic motivation is going to differ even more significantly by individual. I might be motivated by caring about my family, or by wanting to see a better future for the next generation, or an inherent sense of moral rightness in the world. 

Another option is to focus on barriers. What is stopping people from wearing masks? This connects to the COM-B model of behavior change, which states that a behavior (B) requires three elements: 

  • Capability – knowledge and ability to complete the behavior
  • Opportunity – social, economic, and geographic opportunity to complete the behavior
  • Motivation – recognition that the behavior is important

With this in mind, I could perhaps hand out masks (providing opportunity), continue wearing a mask when running (showing that everyone can), or thank people who are wearing masks (reinforcing that the mask matters).

How to Encourage Wearing Masks

Masks are important, and human behavior is complex. As Karen Duffin said in a recent Planet Money episode about mask communication:

 Instead of data, often, we will look to the things that we can see and touch and feel right in front of us for guidance and answers.

So no, I can’t follow the no-mask-wearers on my run and read them the data. (Though it might be an interesting new route!) But I also don’t need to resign myself to having no impact. I can change minds, and impact behavior, simply by giving a thumbs up.

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