Hey, big guy, how about wearing a mask for me?
Although there’s certainly no shortage of antimask women out there (including a few in my own family tree), we’re focusing specifically on men here for two reasons. First, men are statistically more adversely affected by COVID-19 than women.
Second, a recently released study authored by researchers Valerio Capraro of London’s Middlesex University and Hélène Barcelo of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, found that men are less likely than women to wear face coverings. That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has watched the president of the United States and his No. 2, the latter of whom happens to be the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, fly in the face of science by not covering their own faces in public. Or maybe your lack of surprise comes from the curious sight of a family unit who has caught your eye: The mother and children are dutifully mask-clad in public but, for some reason, the father is not.
It was the latter scenario happening on a Berkeley street that inspired mathematician Barcelo to crunch the numbers on gender differences and mask-wearing, she explained to The Times.
“They were outside on bicycles — a papa, a mama and two kids,” Barcelo said. “And the mama and the two kids were wearing masks. And the papa had a mask, but it was around his neck, not on his face. I thought, ‘OK, maybe there is something there,’ and Valerio and I decided to look into it more carefully.”
Posted online in mid-May, the resulting study of 2,459 U.S. participants, “The Effect of Messaging and Gender on Intentions to Wear a Face Covering to Slow Down COVID-19 Transmission,” offers an interesting glimpse into why some men resist the call to cover up — and provides some clues as to how to influence that behavior. In addition to finding that men are less inclined to wear a face mask, the study found that men are less likely than women to believe they will be seriously affected by the coronavirus.
Further, it found a big difference between men and women when it came to the self-reported negative emotions that come with that simple strip of fabric across the face.
As study co-author Capraro explained, “We asked [participants to rank] on a scale of one to 10 how much they agreed with five different statements: ‘Wearing a face covering is cool,’ ‘Wearing a face covering is not cool,’ ‘Wearing a face covering is shameful,’ ‘Wearing a face covering is a sign of weakness’ and ‘The stigma attached to wearing a face covering is preventing me from wearing one as often as I should.’
“The two statements that showed the biggest difference between men and women,” Capraro said, “were, ‘Wearing a face covering is a sign of weakness’ and ‘The stigma attached to wearing a face covering is preventing me from wearing one as often as I should.’ ”
Armed with this sort of insight, might it be possible to hack the male mind to motivate more men to wear a face covering in public? We sought the input of folks who’ve studied the topic, including the study’s authors, a couple of psychologists who focus on men’s behavior and a medical historian. Their suggestions make up a four-pronged strategy we’re going to call the M.A.S.K. Approach.
M — Make it about
not the individual
A — Appeal to patriotism
Navarro said that although the first mandatory mask orders were met with opposition, they also were bolstered by what he described as a surge in patriotic messaging — public service announcements by the Red Cross and other groups that urged people to “do their part” and chided the noncompliant as “slackers.”
He also said that although there is no historical data to show how effective the appeal to patriotism was, there was plenty of press coverage chronicling the opposition to masks later in 1919, when the war was over and San Francisco saw the formation of an Anti-Mask League. Might an appeal to patriotism affect mask donning in the current pandemic? After a note of caution about predicting the future based on the past (“Historians are always a little bit leery about that,” he said), Navarro suggests it could.
“If not necessarily in a direct appeal to patriotism like we saw in 1918,” he said, “I think certainly in an appeal to do the right thing for America by [emphasizing] getting back to a normal economy. The message is, ‘We cannot have a normal economy until we get the pandemic under control,’ and that is not going to happen 100% until we get a vaccine. But we can get much closer to having it under control if people comply with social distancing and wearing a mask while in public.”
S — Stick with
Study authors Capraro and Barcelo muse that sports-team-affiliated face masks might be worth a try. “We didn’t study this so we can’t say for sure,” Capraro said. “But I agree that masks that identify people with something — for example, a sport team — might [persuade more men to wear face coverings], especially because we know from other research that men compared to women have a stronger tendency to identify with a team.”
Before you scoff at the notion of truculent menfolk falling for such a simple and transparent ploy, typing the words “manly mask” at the Etsy website reveals options that practically ooze testosterone: masks in lumberjack plaids and bandanna patterns or adorned with tractors, cigars, whiskey bottles, trout, handlebar mustaches and the Minnesota Vikings’ team logo for starters.
There is some precedent in tapping into masculine stereotypes to influence health behavior, according to Matt Englar-Carlson, author of several books on masculinity and director of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Boys and Men. He pointed to a 2003-05 NIMH campaign called “Real Men. Real Depression.” “They created a bunch of PSAs [featuring] tough men,” Englar-Carlson said, “a retired Air Force guy, a guy in law enforcement, a firefighter, who would talk, essentially, talk about being tough and also having depression. So people in public health have actually tried to do things like this.”
K — Key into humor
“Like a ‘real men wear masks’ thing, right?” Englar-Carlson said. “That could be a way into it, even though the ‘real men’ thing is something that I really hate.”
Until there’s a nationwide campaign aimed at getting more men to wear face coverings in public, it’s up to every individual, business and government entity to use all four prongs of the M.A.S.K. Approach to persuade mask-averse men to do the right thing. That Independence Day bash you’re hosting? That could be a good opportunity to put out star-spangled face coverings. (After all, who can say no to Old Glory on the Fourth of July?)
Even if deployed skillfully and surreptitiously, none of these man-brain hacks will be totally effective. As mentioned, the most effective way to increase mask wearing is to simply make the order mandatory. That’s what California Gov. Gavin Newsom did June 18 in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases. However, as the University of Michigan’s Navarro points out, getting every last man, woman and child to wear a mask is not the goal.
“Whether it’s through vaccination, [PSA] campaigns or social distancing measures, you’re never going to get a 100% compliance. You try and get as high as you can,” he said. “We now know from a lot of modeling studies and studies involving masks that if we can get over 50% — preferably 60% to 80% of compliance with mask orders — we could really drive this epidemic to a manageable level between now and the time we get a vaccine.”