Planet Money - Mask Communication

Why won't some people wear masks? Is there anything we can do to convince them? We look to behavioral economics for help. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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This is planet money from NPR.

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Usually when we as humans are faced with a big problem and someone offers us a simple solution or like thank you so much and we just do that thing and it's huge problem. We're collectively facing right now this pandemic we've been trying some complicated Solutions lockdowns complicated vaccines hard to produce but very simple solution has somehow become controversial just a small piece of cloth that you wear on your face. So simple achievable. In fact, if we all wore masks Goldman Sachs says that alone could have hurt 1 trillion dollars in economic loss by preventing future lockdowns more importantly Health experts say masks could save 33,000 lives by just October a whole stadium of lives saved is enough of us wear them. We are in the group project.

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Of Our Lives that we pass or fail based on participation but not everyone wants to participate but some people just won't wear them other people don't even believe that they work. So as we approach month 9 of this pandemic, it might be a good moment to just step back not to finger point not to judge just to ask with true curiosity and maybe a dose of humility. Why don't some people wear masks and is there anything we can do to convince them? We actually have some good news. There's an entire field of Economist to study exactly this type of conundrum. Why do humans sometimes choose not to do things that are in their own best interests mask-wearing is kind of in the collective best interest but independent make that distinction becomes third really fast. That's right behavioral Economist, you know, the people who designed those nudges the small interventions that guy people towards different Behavior Behavior.

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Economist have helped America smoke less save more for retirement practice safe for sex drink and drive less can they help us resolve this mask conundrum to hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm married child and I'm Karen Duffin today on the show behavioral Economist help us figure out how to encourage people to do. This small thing. They could do such big good. We also speak with an expert who helped Heineken tackle a different intractable problem drinking and driving by using nachos and we commissioned our very own behavioral Economist design wear a mask in public service announcements with some new friends of the show who you just might recognize.

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Support for NPR in the following message come from transferwise the smart new way to send and receive money internationally transferwise gives you the real exchange rate every time you send money abroad. You can even get an account that holds up to 47 currencies at once and convert between them at any time join over 8 million customers in more than 80 countries who were already saving try them out for free at transferwise.com NPR or download the app. Okay so much has those small interventions that behavioral Economist use to redirect Behavior to help people do stuff that's good for them that for whatever reason they're just not doing incredibly powerful take retirement instead of requiring employees to opt into a 401k which a lot of people just don't do behavioral Economist suggested company should opt you into saving for your retirement automatically.

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Most employees just never opt out to the end up saving a lot more to figure out how to nudge people towards wearing a mask. We called up tziona been out. He's a behavioral Economist at Swarthmore. Unfortunately, I think you've hit on the central question of our time right? Why are people resistant to prosocial behavior is there are many things about a pandemic that just make it hard for the cumin brain to fully grasp for starters salience, which is behavioral Economist speak for even if we have facts and data, that's not what usually moves us to action when people are faced with uncertainty, which I think we all are we look around us. We kind of grass for things in our environment that can help us make sense of the uncertainty and resolve it to some extent instead of data. We will look to the things that we can see and touch and feel right in front of us.

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For guidance and answers, which is partly why you see these pockets all over the country where in one pocket Everyone is always wearing a mask. And in another pocket people are wearing masks less challenges here with Covetous, you know, the queues that you're getting or not, you know that it's just devastating disease per say most of us walk around our neighborhoods and people don't you know, I'm falling down on the street and not an ambulance is all over the place. Right? Like when I was in New York during the worst of the pandemic I was surrounded by sirens and the suddenly eerily shuttered New York City like the pandemic was in my face constantly. So there was kind of no way that I would just forget my mask, but then a few months into the pandemic once we were allowed to travel I went to Utah to be with my family in an area where there were maybe a hundred cases of the time and as soon as I got off the plane I was like, oh this is an entirely different pandemic experience.

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No Sirens, just a few mask people kind of hanging out and then within just a few weeks. I would go to the grocery store and I would find myself being like Oh, wait shoot my mask I left it in the car and I was constantly having to run back and get it which would have never happened in New York. Another obstacle. We tend to take what we see in front of us in New York or Utah and we apply it to everything like it. We overestimate how much of our personal experience is universal. We must take the local for the national. This is called the law of small numbers. We also struggle to grasp large numbers, especially exponential growth our brains hear something like there's only 12 cases in town and the idea that I could be on a 12000 in just a month is just so wild that it's hard to grasp and see on says if we do spot a problem we often suffer from what called optimism bias.

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Which of the yeah, you know, it's a problem but it won't happen to me fallacy. These aren't usually conscious beliefs. They usually go unspoken and probably unnoticed by us. Consciously driving our actions somewhere in the back of your head something Whispers. I don't know. I don't see people flooding my local hospital and I'm pretty healthy. Do I really need to wear a mask? The problem. Of course is that by the time you can see the impact of the virus you're already in huge trouble and is corners of America that were still Untouched by the virus started getting lectures from Urban America where the virus was already raging still says this kind of finger-wagging sparked what's called psychological reactance, which is the one people perceive external constraints on their freedom coming from the outside. They are prone to push back against those constraints. It's sort of like what happens when I don't like your sister asks you to wash the dishes even if you were

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Just about to do them suddenly not washing. The dishes is now the hill you will die on it's like that but like for a whole country except in this case, the sister is anyone on the other side of your own politics masks have become this politicized symbol away to signal in group identity instead of debating the health of the science for some it's become a debate over individual rights a few studies show that while more than three-quarters of Americans support mask-wearing the people who resist masks the most cite personal freedom as their recent. So if you walk up to someone not wearing a mask and yell at them, which I think a lot of people are feeling like they want to do when they see these folks that can in French them even more and I can make them even more resistant to the behavior change. So, you know, I certainly think that's one thing I would suggest that we not do so yelling at people or rage tweeting pictures of

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People without masks that might be effective at making you feel good about yourself, but it might not be the most effective way to get everyone to put on a mask. So we asked ceiling does behavioral economics have any suggestions for what we should do when behavioral Economist design nudges to help us act in our own best interest. There is one big motivator that's particularly powerful, especially when they're trying to get us to act in the best interest of the collective like wear masks. Every Community has Norms in the Amtrak quiet car. It's not talking at the grocery. It's not removing produce from someone else's shopping cart or like when you're standing in any line, you just don't cut in line and if someone gets out of my we as a society have ways to deal with that other people intervene when people don't abide by the norms,

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Others name for it that that's called third-party punishment is a behavioral Economist at MIT. We need that that's the way that we get good behavior in the first place is not a bad thing. That's that's the thing that's allowing us to thrive and cooperate and be altruistic towards each other and that's great.

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Like littering. Yes, it's illegal, but mostly we don't do it in front of other people because we don't want to look like jerks. We humans care a lot about our reputations and that social pressure is extremely effective. We are so sensitive to how we're perceived that studies show. If you draw little eyes on a tip jar people are more likely to tip section way more likely just like little John is not realize but they are watching you and it's enough to remind a person that they consider themselves a good person one who tips but starting a norm is like its own little science. And so to learn how to do that. We are going to take you to a bar at a time when covid-19 cyst we present to you with the parable of the beer and the bartenders Heineken had a problem. It's a nasal problem. It's as old as drinking and cars people drink they got

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Cars to drive home and alcohol related car crashes kill some 10,000 people in the United States every year totally avoidable deaths. It's not always the driver who is killed or hurt. It's often random strangers who had no part in their choice to drink or not yet. They pay for it. So like masks it is a collective problem that we can only solve by changing individual Behavior Heineken wanted to nudge people into drinking more responsibly. So they called up Helena Rubinstein a Behavioral Science consultant in Cambridge England to help Helen is first question for Heineken was what do you mean by responsible drinking before it goes into a car zero beers. So her job is to get people to go to a bar and drink nothing at all. At least for anyone who's Drive.

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And this is kind of not the norm in society. But Heineken basically wanted to establish within the micro community of this bar of this experiment a sort of new Norm. So Helena started, we're all not just start by meeting people where they are thinking realistically non-judgmentally about why people drink and drive is the most critical part of the entire process. Could you really want to know what factors cause people to drink and drive and that fool? What can you do to influence those factors that why is the lever you can pull to change Behavior Helena search through the reams of academic data about drinking and driving and the first obstacle. She discovered was just knowledge is not as the demons very small amounts of alcohol blood alcohol concentration at canco zenpad driving slow response times down even when people do no

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The facts they don't accept those facts very clearly partly because of that optimism bias again. We tend to think data don't apply to specifically us out of there, but I don't think it's ever going to happen to them. So I'm the sort of person who's been driving for 20 years and I'm a safe driver and we run into that law of small numbers again that thing where we mistake anecdotes for actual statistics. There's actually a saying kind of almost a joke of anecdote is not data get it kind of funny thing does turn into a kind of big problem, which is that we probably all seen a few people drink and drive and get home just fine which then leads us to conclude. I guess I'm fine too. I'll have another but the most obvious obstacle that Helena saw was peer pressure.

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You'll be in a bit of a spoilsport. If you don't join in overtime, all of these obstacles of human nature telling his team essentially designed a new bar experience. So say you were going out for a pint with your mates at one of these 10 pubs in the UK where they ran their pilot experiment you walk into the bar and there you see some new signs they say in this bar. We support not drinking and driving they're starting to let you know. Hey, there's a new normantown. Then you head to the bar where you see your favorite bartender been best friends forever. He knows all your secrets and he leans in and says, hey you want some free nachos the deal is you can have those nachos. If you sign this pledge that you won't drink. This is from a video they made

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They interviewed some of the bar patrons about the new bar experience. Every time you then you come to get something, you know you access these reward. Obviously, this is not legally binding but research shows that just making a person State a commitment field binding and then to reinforce it in some of the bars when they go fletch's they actually pin them on the board in the boss. So that other people could see I'm not going with pledges. They're making the norm normal and celebrated now, it's cool and find not drink. Of course you wouldn't drink and if you do drink your friends eating those free nachos who just helped you pin your pledge to the board or probably going to be like wait man, seriously and Heineken also has another nudge to help make it not awkward for you to not drink.

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We had to make non-alcoholic beverages more easy to say and by hiding them away under the counter or somewhere in the back, but pushing big signs up around the balls and putting things actually on the box helps when they drive in the pledge that nachos the non-alcoholic drink all these messages add up. But without making you feel coerced or person your Vibe all of this seemed to work what we found was that in the boss that followed the protocol is well, we saw as much as a 50% decrease in drinking and driving from one week to the other they replicated the experiment in Brazil Russia New Zealand and got basically the same result the magic of these

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Little Naches helps to mitigate an intractable Collective problems. Okay, but can be staying kinds of matches also work Magic on math wearing after the break behavioral Economist take a crack at it. And so do we we commissioned our very own Planet Money wear a mask public service announcement?

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This message comes from NPR sponsor Microsoft. The world has changed and Microsoft teams is there to help us stay connected teams is the safe and secure way to chat meet call and collaborate to learn more visit microsoft.com teams. So inbox is flooded with newsletter feedback. This week's newsletter is one of the best. I love your new letter grade is my favorite out there. So we decided that we wanted to try our hand at this changing Behavior thing. We decided to commission our very own psa's that would encourage the norm of mask-wearing Behavioral Economist had been so helpful in teaching us why this Norm has been so hard to establish. So we asked if they could also help us figure out how to like hit restart and try to communicate this normal.

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What to believe from here on out first thing they told us they ignore me don't work you have to make it unambiguous era is Ule again from MIT you are abiding by the norm should always be yes or no, I get the bars. Like they didn't say what people usually say like, please don't exceed. I don't know .08 blood-alcohol level. I mean like who knows how many beers equals .08. Do you have to do this? Elaborate math? So people often just refer to I don't know I feel okay to drive instead in the experiment. They asked did you drink that is a yes or no question. It's unambiguous sounds kind of obvious. But this is one of the things that got most messed up with masks ever serve don't wear them and then it was only at 95 to work and then I was I don't do you have like a r a t t shirt you could tie to your face? And then there was Mick messaging about when to wear a mask like every

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Can you open your front door or just the grocery? Look we got so many mixed messages and all of that made it hard to know what you should personally do much less what Norm we should be trying to enforce with other people. Like should I be mad if you're not wearing a mask in the park seon is working on the norm for his college. He's suggesting. Okay just say if you're not in your dorm wear a mask that also helps because it's concise if you give someone a laundry list pants Zara, don't forget it or they'll be like like more out of 7, I'm good. So let's say you've clearly established the norm that brings us to the second tip. See you and says the messenger matters research shows that in times of uncertainty people being particularly hard on their Social Circles for information should be somebody that the community respects preferably someone local and we know this is another tip that also sounds obvious, but it is also something we kind of screwed up in the pandemic.

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Like let's say you're in Middle America getting a lecture from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo probably not very effective who acted responsibly and then I have to send an ambulance to pick you up and bring you to an emergency room that's already overburdened because you were Reckless and irresponsible. You don't have that right? Totally great for New Yorkers less great for say Virginia where I am. It just sounds kind of rude here. It's probably going to generate some of that react like thank you for your input to be more effective. You probably want someone like that bartender like, you know him you like him. He's definitely not a buzzkill like he's basically the governor of that Pub and for masks maybe you want the message to come from local doctors and nurses or if I don't know Betty White to remind people that alright oldie

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Like my grandparents are at risk or for kids going back to school this fall. Maybe he's big bird.

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Skip three kind of related localized the message. The own says take Montana. They put out these pictures of people wearing masks in very Montana. Anyways, the ad said we're here in Montana wear masks and his pictures of people hunting with their masks on you know, that the hunting mask with people wear and then they had pictures of people skiing and I said when you ski wear a mask when you hunt you wear a mask it's actually sang. This is not that different of a of an environment right? It's just another scenario where you need to please wear wear a mask emotion is very helpful when it gets too far. There's a point at which it becomes not so helpful. Like you probably do want to instill some fear of the virus but research shows that if you make people too scared with no sense that they can actually solve the problem. Sometimes they just kind of get paralyzed and don't act same goes for anger and shaming some shaming helps reinforce the norm, but too much provokes reactants.

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And resistance so make it clear localized the message deliver it from a trusted messenger and use emotions, but carefully and roll but like we said earlier this issue has its own special challenges. It's become politicized tied to Identity rights Freedom. So we took all of this behavioral economics wisdom and we went out to Time Square to talk to a freedom-loving cowboy. All you got to do what you got to do everybody. I'm Robert Burke better known as the Naked Cowboy. I'm in town square. I usually just wear my underwear boots hat and my guitar but nowadays. I'm wearing a mask. If you put your hand in front of your mouth and talk, you can tell a lot of stuff comes out and he's coming since it helps.

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Even if you don't want to wear a mask as you're a big Trump, sir, I'm a real trumpster, but I still say come on. It's not a big imposition to wear a mask. You know, he just people are actually or concerned about stupid. I am, that's what's called crossing the aisle because we're all in this together drunk taking those regulations off the backs of those corporations. Sounds like a good idea at 8. I'm going to get cut off in PR for this.

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I was actually Naked Cowboy. We would never cut that off. Thank you. Did you just write that on the spot? I mean, is that like a is that what he does and next if you are trying to reach people who are motivated by love of family. We are honored to have a word from America's mom wife of Peter mother of Stewie and Chris close personal friend of Frank Sinatra Juniors friend, Brian and headliner of Family Guy. Hi, I'm Lois Griffin proud wife full-time mother and one-time mayor of Quahog to wear. Those things are true. Now. I understand that you have been out and about not wearing your mask. What are you doing? Seriously? What are you doing? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of this thing will be over and we can get back to business as usual. Come on if I can do it you can do it. I got all my kids wearing one even though like, I know this pandemic has made us all feel crazy. We feel alone We crave.

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Human touch with Peter misses his chicken fight so much. We bought him a bucket of KFC and we just let him pound it with his fist. And then we ate it now come on. We're Yamask what people live take care of each other life is sacred baby. Let's do this thing.

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I'm pretty please I think we're doing good. We have given you all of the tips that we can and now we want you to go out and make your own tea essays and send them to us. We're Planet Money at NPR. Org. We are also on Facebook Twitter Instagram and Tick Tock at Planet Money. We also made our very own special Tik Tok PSA about mask please check that out extra special huge. Thanks to Kirker Butler Alex Borstein and Laura Atkinson. Also Allison Boonton High and Lara Stephens fuse 20a Stacy Campbell Johnny bolts. And Nancy times was produced by James need with help from Autumn barn and mix by Neil Roush Alex goldmark. Is there supervising producer and Brian Torres debt at its the show if you like space episode or are pfas for very proud of them. Please send them to your friends. I'm Karen Duffin & I married child, this is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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