New Chinese research suggests using masks leads people to behave ethically

The research conducted across 10 studies focused on deviant behavior demonstrates that masks cause people to be less likely to behave poorly than those who weren't wearing them.

Residents wearing face masks queue for nucleic acid testings in Wuhan, the Chinese city hit hardest by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Hubei province, China May 16, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/ALY SONG)
Residents wearing face masks queue for nucleic acid testings in Wuhan, the Chinese city hit hardest by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Hubei province, China May 16, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALY SONG)

China got the rest of the world into the mess caused by COVID-19, which resulted in millions of deaths, mass vaccination campaigns, lockdowns and mask-wearing. Now, a new study conducted by American and Chinese researchers has shown that at least in China, wearing face masks for health reasons also induces people to behave more ethically.

The research conducted across 10 studies focused on deviant behavior – such as running red lights, violating parking rules and cheating for money – demonstrates that such face coverings cause people to be less likely to behave aberrantly than those who were not wearing them. The researchers said this is not just happenstance, but that in China using masks increases moral awareness and thus spurs some people to be more rule-abiding.

What the researchers have found

“We found that masks, in China, function as a moral symbol that reduces the wearer’s deviant behavior,” said associate Prof. Jackson Lu, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and co-author of a newly published paper detailing the findings.

As Lu and his co-authors note that a variety of factors – not just masks – can influence behavior. Overall, they estimate that mask-wearing accounts for about four percent of the variance in deviant behavior they observed when comparing those wearing masks to those not wearing them.

Israeli children wearing face masks make their way to school in Moshav Yashresh, on May 3, 2020 (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)Israeli children wearing face masks make their way to school in Moshav Yashresh, on May 3, 2020 (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

The paper, “Masks as a Moral Symbol: Masks Reduce Wearers’ Deviant Behavior in China During COVID-19,” has just been published in Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences. Joining Lu, who is the Sloan School’s career development associate professor of work and organization studies, were Lesley Luyang Song, a doctoral student in marketing at Tsinghua University in China; Yuhuang Zheng, an associate professor of marketing at that university; and Laura Changlan Wang, a doctoral student at the Sloan School.

“Mask-wearing explains a meaningful but reasonable proportion of the variance,” Lu asserted, adding, “We’re talking about likelihoods here.”

“Mask-wearing explains a meaningful but reasonable proportion of the variance,”

Prof. Jackson Lu, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management

Since the pandemic became widespread in early 2020, social scientists have learned a great deal about what makes people inclined to wear masks, but generally have not explored the behavioral consequences of masking. In conducting the studies, Lu and his co-authors tested two competing hypotheses about the effect of mask-wearing on deviant behavior in China.

One hypothesis, said Lu, is that “masks can disinhibit wearers’ deviant behavior by increasing anonymity,” making people “more likely to engage in norm-breaking actions.”

A competing hypothesis is that masks may be “heightening people’s moral awareness” when worn, Lu says. “If it’s a moral symbol that symbolizes the moral duty and virtue of protecting others and sacrificing one’s personal convenience for the collective welfare, maybe masking can lead the individual to choose the morally right course of action.”

To examine these ideas, the researchers conducted 10 separate studies in China to tackle the issue empirically. In one study, they analyzed traffic-camera recordings of an intersection and found that pedestrians and cyclists who were wearing masks were less likely to run red lights, compared to those who were not wearing masks. The 10 studies involved roughly 68,000 observations, a large scale that underscores the apparent reliability of the results.

Of course, it could be that people choosing to wear masks are more cautious overall than those without masks and that pedestrian or cycling behavior reflects this predisposition, the authors suggested. To rule out individual differences in risk aversion as an alternative explanation, the scholars conducted other studies. One of their studies showed that even when it comes to bike parking places – a matter that does not bear on an individual’s personal safety – mask-wearers tend to follow the rules and park legally more often than non-wearers.

In another case, the researchers conducted experiments to establish causality. They found that participants randomly assigned to wear a mask (as opposed to those who were not) were less likely to cheat for money. Increased moral awareness partly explained the difference in behavior.

“The common thread is they’re all examples of deviant behavior that could hurt individuals, organizations or society,” Song said. The research also included survey work showing that Chinese citizens regard masks as a moral symbol.

The researchers acknowledge that while masks have been worn globally over the last few years, the current research applies only to Chinese society. “We only have data from China, so we are careful not to generalize,” Lu declared.

Even in China, Lu noted, the way masks influence behavior could change over time as well. The current research provides a snapshot of a phenomenon, but further work in other times and places could reveal new insights. “The meaning of masks is probably dynamic and contextualized,” Lu said. “Right now, masks may function as a moral symbol, but over time, the meaning of masks could change. Future research is needed.”

One can’t help but wonder if wearing masks, which had been worn mostly by bank robbers and terrorists, made Israelis more ethical.