To help fight COVID-19, public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have recommended wearing a cloth face mask in public settings to protect other people. But many are reluctant to wear a mask out of concerns for how others may perceive us. Perhaps wearing a mask makes us look weak or acquiescent to authority. Or maybe it casts us in a more positive light.
Whichever claim you believe, telling folks not to worry about what others think of us doesn't work. They want to know how people perceive us when we wear a mask. And we do too. So we tested it.
We had 400 people from Amazon MTurk participate in a survey experiment using a vignette scenario of another person who was either wearing or not wearing a mask during COVID-19. Whether or not the person was wearing a mask was randomly assigned in accordance with a randomized controlled trial. Participants read the following scenario:
Imagine that you are making a trip to the grocery store. You arrive, find a parking spot near the middle of the lot, park your car, and begin walking toward the entrance. You look around and notice that it's moderately busy. Some people are wearing face masks due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) precautions.
There's a short line to get into the store, so you get in line. As you wait, the person in front of you tries to strike up a conversation and make small talk. He is a man in his early 30s.
He is [not] wearing a face mask.
Participants then answered three survey questions measuring our outcomes of interest. "To what extent do you agree with each of the statements below, using the 1-7 scale?" "I trust this person," "I like this person," and "I would talk with him." Results
Good news. Wearing a mask actually increased the wearer’s likability, trustworthiness, and likelihood that the respondent would talk to him. And the effect sizes were quite large. On average, wearing a mask increased perceived likability by 43% (1.34 points; p < 0.001), trustworthiness by 47% (1.35 points; p < 0.001), and likelihood of engaging in conversation by 43% (1.43 points; p < 0.001).
Alright, so wearing a mask actually improves people's perceptions of you. But these are average effects. Maybe certain groups of people think differently, for example, Republicans vs. Democrats, men vs. women, or older vs. younger people. Well we tested that too. We found no difference between Republicans and Democrats (p = 0.650), conservative and liberal states (p = 0.393) nor between men and women (p = 0.920). Although older respondents were slightly more fond of our mask wearer, the results were not statistically significant (p = 0.161).
We used ordinary least squares (OLS) regression analyses to test for significant differences in perceived likability, trustworthiness, and talking between our hypothetical mask wearer vs. non-wearer, For significant differences, the coefficient would be large and its corresponding “p-value” would be small. If the p-value is less than 0.05, we consider the difference statistically significant. To test whether differences for specific groups differ significantly from their counterparts (e.g., Republicans vs. Democrats) we used OLS regression analyses with interaction terms.
Daniel Brown is an award-winning researcher, social scientist, and founder of AB Labs. He holds a doctorate in Management from Harvard University and has conducted over 100 randomized controlled trials in social psychology.