Beliefs about Mask Efficacy and the Effect of Social Norms on Mask-wearing Intentions for COVID-19 Risk Reduction

by Alessia Melegaro and Maria Cucciniello, in collaboration with Yale University, University of Siena, University of Edinburgh, University of Lausanne

In the absence of widespread vaccination for COVID-19, governments and public health officials have advocated for the public to wear masks during the pandemic. The decision to wear a mask in public is likely affected by both beliefs about its efficacy and the prevalence of the behavior. Greater mask use in the community may encourage others to follow this norm, but it also creates an incentive for individuals to free ride on the protection afforded to them by others. We report the results of two vignette-based experiments conducted in the United States and Italy to examine the causal relationship between beliefs, social norms, and reported intentions to engage in mask promoting behavior. We find that providing information about how masks protect others increases the likelihood that someone would wear a mask or encourage others to do so in the United States, but not in Italy. There is no effect of providing information about how masks protect the wearer in either country. Additionally, greater mask use increases intentions to wear a mask and encourage someone else to wear theirs properly in both the United States and Italy. Thus, community mask use may be self-reinforcing.