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Altruism, Free-Riding, Social Pressure and Willful Non-Compliance

December 20, 2021 | Letters

Author: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University, Department of Agricultural Economics

Based upon and inspired by the recent Open-Access Peer-Reviewed Publication:

Bir, Courtney and Nicole Olynk Widmar. 2021. Social pressure, altruism, free-riding, and non-compliance in mask wearing by U.S. residents in response to COVID-19 pandemic. Social Sciences & Humanities Open. Volume 4, Issue 1, 2021.

We know that human behaviors impact the trajectory of the ongoing pandemic. In fact, it is the cumulative impacts of millions of individuals’ decisions and behaviors that ultimately determine the course of the pandemic within populations. But human decision-making and human behavior are complicated, and fatigue has now set in on top of continuous confusion and a multitude of other factors.

Possibilities for free-riding, altruism, peer-pressure (i.e., bandwagoning behavior) and protest/angry resistance regarding mask wearing behaviors in the U.S. have been recognized.

Free-riding is fundamentally taking advantage of the efforts of others to establish some collective good without actually contributing oneself. Free-riding is commonly talked about in the context of vaccination decisions, but applies in a number of other public health-relevant behaviors and outcomes.

Bandwagoning behavior reflects actions or activities that are currently fashionable or socially supported, often recognized as peer pressure or coming from some amount of societal inertia.

Altruism is a selfless concern for others or generally caregiving for others beyond oneself.

We hypothesized mask compliance was related to personal beliefs about the roles of masks in public health, along with demographics. We found that, indeed, people who believed wearing masks protected others were more likely to report voluntarily wearing them, providing possible evidence of altruism. Perceiving social pressure negatively impacted the probability of voluntary mask wearing amongst those who believed masks have a role in society, suggesting social shaming won’t increase compliance. And free-riding was one possible explanation for why individuals may self-report that masks have a role in society but simultaneously self-report not wearing one. Of course, incomplete knowledge, confusion about the role of masks in controlling disease spread and/or pandemic fatigue are all also plausible explanations themselves or confounding factors for why adults who believe masks play a role self-report less than optimal compliance in their own behavior.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers an all-too-familiar example in which to examine individual behaviors that have societal impacts, but these concepts are far from new. Vaccination decisions, including those made repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime, like for influenza, are commonly framed in the contexts of protecting oneself and one’s community. Shared experiences may aid in understanding why some societies are more compliant with public health protective measures than others — specifically, nations lacking first-hand experience with dire public health consequences may be less likely to take up mandates than countries in which significant public health events are in recent memory. But the social and societal memory argument is far from simple since we found that perceiving social pressure around oneself negatively impacted the probability of voluntary mask wearing, even amongst those who self-stated masks have a role in society. Thus, while societal memory may matter, our findings suggest social shaming won’t ‘fix’ the situation and convince individuals to mask up.

In contrast to vaccinations which are impossible to detect casually in another person in a public setting, mask wearing (or the lack thereof) in public is a visually observable practice. Hand washing after using a restroom falls in between these two extremes of verifiability, remaining visually verifiable only to those present in the restroom during a short period of time. We all know we are supposed to wash our hands, but we’ve all also seen the statistics to know that many (many…far too many) people don’t. Given we’ve known our whole lives that we should wash our hands after using the restroom (especially a public restroom!) and a significant portion of us simply do not do it, the concept of “just wear a mask” is simply not that simple. Bottom line, if you won’t wash your hands after using a public bathroom, no wonder we struggle as a U.S. society to get a mask on you in Walmart.