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How to get people to wear masks

  • Published at 01:01 pm March 27th, 2021
Bara Buri

What can behavioural insights do to make implementation more effective?

Mr. Karim knows that wearing a mask is necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19. But he still doesn’t use it regularly. Doesn’t he care about his life or the lives of people around him? Can we nudge or push him towards using a mask regularly? 

Any behaviour change is hard to implement, especially on a mass scale. Covid-19 has made us change our lifestyles and forced us to adapt to the new normal. But the fact that humans are naturally lazy and change-resistant, it has been hard to make people follow social protocols. 

In Bangladesh, we are observing a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases and deaths that indicates another wave. We need to make people wear masks in public places to ensure the disease doesn’t spread like wildfire that will have a devastating effect on people. Bangladesh lacks the infrastructure to support mass-scale patients and we need to take preventive measures immediately. 

Now that we are all in accord with the necessity of wearing masks, policymakers and implementors have multiple ways to make people adhere to the health guidelines. Imposing fines on people who don’t wear it is one way of punishment. Educating the benefit of wearing a mask can also help. But we all know that educating people or punishing people doesn’t ensure the desired action. We all know the benefits of healthy eating practices and exercising regularly, most of us want to follow those as well, but we just don’t get down to doing it eventually. Here is where nudging, a technique from behavioural economics can be so helpful. Nudging aids people to take the right decision as well as guides them to act.

Let’s analyze the steps are or potential pitfalls to wearing a mask regularly. Realizing the need to wear a mask is the first step of the journey, if we can’t make people understand the value of the act then any initiative at a later stage won’t be impactful. After awareness, people need to buy or make usable masks, take masks with them whenever they go out, wear masks, and finally clean or dispose of masks. At every step of the way, we can use nudging techniques to push people towards the right behaviour. Let’s see what nudges we can use at different stages-

Awareness stage

Awareness is the primary step of the user journey. At this stage, we need to send messages to make people realize how important it is to wear a mask. Messages can be designed in different ways to activate the implementation mindset within people. We also need to make the benefits of using masks more salient. The additional immediate health benefits of using mask outside can be highlighted too such as avoiding pollution etc. Implementation mindset can be invoked within people by highlighting accomplishments. March is a special month for us, and we can share our national accomplishments to encourage how we can defeat this Covid-19 too by using masks.

Buying or making a mask

Buying a mask needs to be simple, quick, and easy for everyone. We need to especially think about the vulnerable communities. The lower the transaction cost, the higher the usage will be. That’s why we need to make it cheap and easy to buy masks offline and online. If people can make masks at home by using easily available materials, then it can be helpful too. Sharing how to make medically approved masks easily will encourage people to use masks without spending too much money. We can also distribute masks to low-income and remote communities free or at a subsidized rate which will increase mask usage.

Taking mask while going out

At this stage, people need constant reminders to wear a mask. We know that reminders create decision points where human brains are activated to take a decision. In this case, decision points will help people trigger their active decision making about wearing a mask. Humans are forgetful and that’s why encouraging people to keep masks close to the door where we keep keys usually will be a good strategical reminder. Reminder stickers and notices should be placed in the lifts and staircases as well so that if someone forgets, he or she gets reminded immediately and can get a mask back quickly on their way out of home and workplace.

Wearing a mask

Some people tend to not use a mask despite having it with them. To make them wear it when it is needed, putting outdoor reminder signs like posters, road banners, billboards, etc. will be helpful to give them a push. Reminder texts during the working hours will be beneficial too. Another factor here is making people feel that there are more people following the guideline. When messages are shared in the media that most of the people are not wearing it, most of the people take it as if others are not doing it then I might as well not do it. We need to share stories of people who are following the guideline more. We need to create community groups that can influence others.

Cleaning it or disposing of masks

The final step is to make disposing of masks easy. If the masks are reusable, then cleaning them needs to be cheap and convenient. Communication needs to be shared with instructions regarding how and where to dispose of masks. We need to make sure that mask disposal bins or places are available, preferably within arm's length of people. 

Considering all the stages, let’s assume that we have a larger bottleneck in the awareness phase. And, we need to make people aware of the danger of not using a mask. Multiple pieces of research have shown that humans hate losses more than they love gains. So, how we frame the message can be vital in the effectiveness of a campaign. This phenomenon is called the human behavioural preference for loss aversion. That’s why we have tested two communications where everything was the same except one key message. Both the contents were created in Bangla to cater to the audience in Bangladesh. The common factors were an image of a girl wearing a mask, additional information- more than 8 thousand people have died in Bangladesh due to Covid-19, and the call to action- let’s all wear masks.

The difference was the main message. In one communication (Picture-1), we used a message that targeted loss aversion. The message was, “We don’t want to lose anymore”. On the other communication (Picture-2), we used a message that targeted gaining something. The message for this one was, “Only we can save every life”. We wanted to know whether these two slightly different communications have a different impact on the intention to wear masks or not. To test this hypothesis, we ran a small test. We sent picture-1 one to a group of people (25 each) and asked them to tell us how likely they were to use a mask (on a 7-scale rating) after seeing the communication. The other group saw picture-2 and were asked to share their feedback as well. 


The result shows that participants were 15% more likely to wear a mask when they saw picture-1 which targeted loss aversion. This number may seem low but with a slight change of message framing, it proves that we can improve campaign impact that can be life-saving. To be able to confirm this result, we will need to conduct a randomized control trial (RCT) and observe behaviour change. If we can do RCTs on all the steps of nudging, we will be able to find which nudging techniques work on this issue and replicate it on a mass level successfully. 

Nudging, introduced by a noble prize winner in economics Richard Thaler, is an evidence-based technique that is designed to support desired behaviour change. We, as not so flawless human beings as we are, get influenced by context and become irrational. By accepting this irrational behaviour of ourselves, behavioural economics can help us drive social and behavioural changes in the right direction. Governments and policymakers around the world have embraced behavioural insights and are reaping benefits out of them. It is about time in Bangladesh, we start using it to design more impactful campaigns and start saving more lives or in this case, we should say not lose any more lives.

Naser Azad is a communications and research consultant currently based in Toronto, Canada. He worked for multiple MNCs in Bangladesh as a brand and communications specialist before moving to Canada

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