Man wearing a facemask
(credit: Jernej Furman CC BY)

Why do(n’t) we heed COVID-19 measures?

As COVID-19 infections are on the rise again, it seems not everyone is prepared to continue adhering to safe behaviours like physical distancing and wearing a facemask. What motivates (non-)compliant behaviour?

There has been some good news regarding possible COVID-19 vaccines lately. But it takes time to prove a vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and for the time being we must rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions like covering our nose and mouth, keeping at a safe distance from others, and limiting the number of contacts, to prevent the spread of the disease in the community. As the number of cases is on the increase again in many countries where COVID-19 appeared to be under control, the finger of blame points at people who are disregarding the rules.

What might motivate people to comply, or disobey, the behavioural measures that apply widely?

Human behaviour is a complex affair, which is the result from a wide range of external and internal influences, possibly further modified by an array of cognitive biases and fallacies. One way to try to make sense of it that I have found useful in my work is to consider behaviour as the consequence of a trade-off. We almost always have two or more options ahead of us, and we end up picking one rather than the other. What our preferred choice is, and how it is made, can both give insight in what drives the behaviour, and help figure out how a different choice can be encouraged.

One way to make a trade-off is to weigh up the costs and benefits of the available options based on the facts we know: what do we need to sacrifice, and what do we get in return in each case? Let’s see if we can explain compliant behaviour like wearing a facemask, or practising physical distancing with this trade-off.

The personal benefits of doing so are far from obvious. How likely is it that we would meet someone who is infectious? Infection rates are typically still of the order of 1 in 1,000 or less, so the chance we spend enough time with someone to be exposed to their viral emissions is very small. Besides, masks are said to protect mainly others in case we ourselves are already infectious, rather than safeguard us from others.

Monkey wearing a facemask, with caption “this is what our ears will look like in one month’s time
Monkey wearing a facemask, with caption “this is what our ears will look like in one month’s time
If the cost is getting ears like this, I am not so sure (image: Linda De Volder CC BY)

Now, it is not because we cannot personally ascertain the benefits of something that it cannot guide our behaviour. Few of us know from direct experience that vitamins and minerals are important nutrients. Yet we make sure our diet supplies us with them, following the advice of people with more expertise, whom we trust.

The downsides of not adhering to the measures, too, are abstract and lack salience. We may be able to make a connection between not wearing a seatbelt and losing a leg or suffering brain damage in a car accident, but the link in our minds from not wearing a mask or having a barbecue with 20 friends to some terrible consequence of catching COVID-19 is far from clear.

Unfortunately, where it concerns the benefits of non-pharmaceutical interventions, that advice leaves a lot to be desired. Government guidance is often inconsistent, mandating facemasks in certain settings where they are widely thought have no discernible effect (e.g. outdoors, when we are not close to others for a long time), and not requiring them in indoor settings where they are likely to be more efficacious. Their mandates often seem arbitrary: is a bubble of 5 people safe, and one of 6 really unsafe? Why did the British need to keep 2 metres apart while in the rest of Europe 1.5m was enough — and why is a distance of 1 metre now OK in the UK? What is the scientific evidence that curfews meaningfully help contain the spread? Governments fail to make a solid case for the measures they impose, and as a result they fail to convince many of us of the benefits.

So, inevitably, the overriding factor in this trade-off is the cost. For mask wearing, the sacrifice is relatively modest, but with benefits that hardly feel compelling, it is not likely that many people’s choice to wear masks is driven by a reasoned cost-benefit analysis. For physical distancing, the cost of putting much of one’s social life on hold is significant — so it’s even less probable that people adhere to it based on an evaluation of pros and cons. If we see a majority of people sticking with the rules, something else must be at play.

Explaining non-compliant behaviour through this trade-off is much easier. We don’t like paying or making sacrifices, and we like it even less if it seems we get nothing in return.

An evaluation of costs and benefits takes into account the evidence and our preferences to come to a conclusion as to what to do. But sometimes our preferences are so strong they dominate the decision-making, even if there is evidence that might challenge them. It is as if one side of the scales carries so much weight that no imaginable counterweight could make it tip the other way. We just know what is the right thing, no need to reason about it. Might compliant behaviour be explained by this trade-off?

Quite a few people may well stick with the rules simply because the authorities say so: that is what they believe we are all supposed to do. Others may act in accordance with their conviction that it is their civic duty towards society, or even choose to make the sacrifices they make specifically out of altruistic concern for those who are vulnerable. Perhaps some are persuaded by celebrities who endorse the measures through social media or even in publicity in the media. And of course, there will be those who have a blind belief in the efficacy of the measures in question, and who will behave accordingly.

Two people wearing hoodies and facemasks
Two people wearing hoodies and facemasks
We believe in masks (image: Geoff Livingston CC BY)

In some countries, notably the USA, the facemask has also become a strong and evidently highly visible signal of tribal allegiance. A recent episode of the excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast discusses this particular motive in detail. Wearing, or not wearing, a mask is seen as a powerful indicator of one’s (ideological) identity. Not many people are comfortable exhibiting a behaviour that is associated with the opposing tribe, and even less to be seen to do so. The belief that wearing or not wearing a mask is the right thing to do is motivated by the tribe with which one affiliates.

But even non-tribal, social signalling can influence whether people will wear a mask or not: does it say “ this person is sick”, or “ this person is frightened”, “ this person is distrusting of others”, or even “ this person is slavishly following orders from the government “? People who believe this, or who believe others believe this, might be put off wearing a mask because they do not want to convey such a message. Others, in contrast, may precisely want to signal that they are good, concerned citizens by wearing a mask.

And then there are those with a strong opinion that the government has no business mandating the wearing of masks, and resist on grounds of personal liberty. There is also the intriguing phenomenon of : reacting to a perceived threat to one’s freedom by engaging in the behaviour that is prohibited, or in the behaviour that is opposite to the one imposed. You have probably experienced it before.

When preferences are weak, the context prevails

A final form of trade-off is also characterized by an absence of conscious reasoning but, unlike the previous one, applies when we have weak, or even undefined preferences. If that is the case, we tend to do what is easiest, what others do, what we normally do and so on — we are led by the context, the situation, or underlying behavioural tendencies that apply in the absence of anything else.

Social proof is a prime example in this case. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, few people would have given any thought to whether or not it is appropriate to wear a facemask in such a situation. In the absence of any other potent influence (whether an unambiguous cost-benefit case, or a strong opinion) we might just do what most others do — or at least most others we can see. Perhaps we would be selective, and follow the lead of people we associate with, rather than look at everyone — our circle of friends, our colleagues, our professional community, you name it.

Putting it all together

For many people, the choice of what to do will be a combination of two, maybe all three types of trade-off. They may reason about the costs and benefits, and include beliefs in their evaluation (without letting them dominate the decision) — “ I don’t enjoy not going out with my friends, but my belief that I should protect my grandmother and the other people in her care home is more important “.

Despite the relatively high cost of the measures and the unconvincing benefits, some people might, follow the rules thanks to something they believe. But they might change their mind when they see others contravene the rules, even if it is only a few — “ If they don’t stick to the rules, I don’t see why I should.

Some may experience cognitive dissonance when two types of trade-off inspire opposing behaviours (or when two strong beliefs are in conflict with each other). If you are far from convinced of the usefulness of wearing a mask but your tribe supports it, you may find yourself justifying doing so too on the basis of evidence of its effectiveness. Or the other way round: you can justify not wearing a mask on the basis of arguments claiming it makes you breathe in too much CO2, or is against your religious beliefs. Such motivated reasoning, which makes use of selective evidence or desperately convoluted arguments, is a common mechanism we use to alleviate cognitive dissonance.

How might these three kinds of trade-offs be used to encourage more people to exhibit compliant behaviour? In behavioural science, there are unfortunately no certainties. What is very effective in one setting may backfire bigly in another, so experiments are needed to establish what works. But it is possible to identify some potential avenues.

Activating profound beliefs can be a powerful motivator. Linking a particular behaviour with a strongly held belief can boost its adoption considerably. But it is challenging: the non-compliant citizens do not necessarily share a single belief that can be used in this way. To use this lever, it is necessary to identify clear subsets of the overall audience and specifically target them.

Leveraging social influence can be a useful mechanism for nudging people who don’t have strong feelings either way. Here too, given the potential tribal dimension, it may make sense to focus on specific subgroups to make sure the right message gets to the right audience, whether it’s football fans, beer drinkers or people who cycle to work.

Making it easy and making it appealing can be effective nudges too. Masks with cool inscriptions or imagery — why not one with “I’d rather not wear a mask” for those who experience cognitive dissonance? — might become popular, perhaps even designer masks (and if people pay good money for them, they will definitely wear them!)

To finish where we started, at the cost-benefit trade-off, an obvious approach is to make non-compliant behaviour costly, by imposing fines (which, of course, happens already). This is the conventional view that people will respond to incentives. This in itself is a costly intervention to enforce, though, and it may not have much impact if the degree of non-compliance is too high.

Perhaps the most powerful intervention governments can contemplate to improve compliance is to provide meaningful, credible guidance. Make a good case for each measure (in which both benefits and costs are explicitly weighed up), and if a good case cannot be made, think twice before implementing it.

Originally published at on August 7, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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