To Get People to Wear Masks, Try Comparing Them to Seatbelts and Helmets

Is there anything the government can say to get people to wear masks during a pandemic? There’s one message that had some positive effect, at least in Illinois. 

A recent survey of more than than 2,000 state residents offered respondents five different messages and gauged whether they made people more or less likely to wear a mask in public, as compared to a control group that saw no message. Comparing masks to helmets and seatbelts was the only message that had a positive impact on people’s decisions.

The finding adds evidence totheargument that linking masks to safety measures already widely adopted — and legally enforced — could increase compliance with mask mandates. It may also reflecthard-won progress in persuading more Americans to buckle their seatbelts in the first place.

Wearing a mask in most public places has been mandatory in Illinois since May 1. In August, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker introduced new emergency rules to penalize businesses that fail to enforce mask-wearing, and evenmade it a felony to attack a retail-worker enforcing such a rule. Despite all that, only 66% of Illinois residents said they “always” wore a mask when leaving their homes in the last week, the survey by Civis Analytics found. The survey, conducted during the week of June 22, informed a new $5 million campaign to persuade more people to wear masks. 

“We wanted to make sure that whatever dollars we were putting forward on this mask campaign would be used most effectively to get the message across, to convince people, and to do it with a focus on areas where it might be needed more,” Pritzker said in an interview. 

About 92% of respondents who were shown the message that compared masks to helmets and seatbelts were likely to wear a mask, compared to 89% of the respondents in the control group. A 3 percentage point increase may not seem like much, but Civis says messages like these tend to have a lower effect for issues that people have already been highly exposed to. “People have heard so much about it that their opinions are strongly held,” Crystal Son, health care analytics director at Civis, said in an email. “Given the saturation of messaging around Covid and masks, a 3 [percentage point] treatment effect is both statistically significant and meaningful.”

The sample “comparison” message that was tested featured a Facebook-style post with three image panels: “seatbelt before driving,” with a photo of a buckle and latch; “helmet before game,” with a photo of a football helmet; and “mask before going out,” with a photo of a mask. 

The other messages failed to have a persuasive effect among the sample tested, and two of them made people less likely to want to wear a mask, although Civis said those negative responses fell within the margin of error and should be seen as having neutral effects.

The worst-performing message showed the World Health Organization finding that masks may reduce Covid-19 spread by 85% and included text that began, “The science is clear.” That strategy led to a 3 percentage point decrease in mask-wearing likelihood as compared to the control group. The other message with a negative effect showed images of people wearing masks with text over it that read, “If it gets us out, we’re all in,” with smaller text explaining that wearing a mask lets people get out of the house. Messages invoking a potential second wave of coronavirus and the risk of infecting elderly family members had neutral effects. 

That bodes well for places where the need is greater. The comparison message will be used for advertisements on television, radio, billboards and social media, with a focus on areas in Illinois at the greatest risk of Covid-19. Flare-ups in downstate Illinois have been reported as the state grapples with a surge in cases. 

“In different areas of the state, there was different compliance for a variety of reasons — historical reasons, political reasons,” Pritzker said. “I have tried very hard to raise up the numbers in areas that have not complied.” Pritzker has called on President Donald Trump to institute a national mask requirement. 

A few other studies have yielded different insights about persuasive techniques. One set of experiments by psychologists, which will be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that the most persuasive argumentsfocused on the benefits of helping others. This study tested moral arguments and didn’t try any law-and-order safety message. This kind of help-others messaging wasadopted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s slogan. Other studies have found positive impacts frommask mandates andgovernment recommendations.

Illinois is also trying another policy tack to get people to wear masks: putting the onus on businesses to enforce mask requirements. The new rulescleared a legislative oversight committee Tuesday and permit local authorities to fine businesses up to $2,500, or issue them a misdemeanor charge, if they don’t enforce mask-wearing and social-distancing mandates. Retailers have complained that the rules should put the responsibility on individuals rather than businesses, which have already suffered during the pandemic. But Pritzker said the measure offers an alternative to the “draconian” solutions of forcing businesses to close or revoking their licenses for violations.

“What we wanted to do was just have a monetary fine,” Pritzker said. “Those exist in many other states, but in Illinois law it didn’t exist.”

Among the respondents who reported wearing masks, 27% said they do so to keep themselves safe and 24% said they do to protect the vulnerable. Only 17% said they wear masks because public health experts and scientists say it’s important to, and a smaller percentage said they do because it’s a requirement. Among respondents who said they never wear masks, 32% cited their “freedom of choice” in explaining why. 

“There’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of the message,” Son said of the comparisons strategy. “This one is the most politically neutral, and it’s just very straightforward, to the point.” 

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