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MDX academic's new COVID-19 research shows more people would wear face masks if they use reasoning

The findings could help encourage more people to wear face masks during coronavirus pandemic

People are more likely to wear face masks to stop potentially spreading COVID-19 if they rely on reasoning instead of emotions, according to new research co-authored by an MDX academic.

With countries around the world promoting the use of face covering as they ease lockdowns, the study could have major practical implications by encouraging the public to focus on logic instead of their emotional response when deciding to wear a mask.

The research has been carried out by Dr Valerio Capraro, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Middlesex University, along with Hélène Barcelo, from the Mathematical Science Research Institute, Berkeley, USA.

"Developing mechanisms that favour the use of face masks is crucial to slow down COVID-19 transmission and flatten the curve of the spread," Dr Capraro, Senior Lecturer in Economics.

They surveyed 1,920 people living in the USA using the crowdsourcing website Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Participants were asked to respond either based on reasoning or emotion, on a scale from 0 strongly disagree to 10 strongly agree, to their intentions to wear a face mask outside the home, engage in social activities and with people from another household.

Overall after three surveys, the results show that relying on reasoning produced an average of 7.16 compared to an average of 6.48 when they respond based on emotions.

The research concludes:  “These results have practical and theoretical implications.

“From a practical perspective, finding ways to promote the use of face masks is key during the second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic response, in which, after the initial strict lockdown, local and national governments are relaxing shelter-in-place (stay at home) rules, so that some segments of the population are allowed to circulate more freely.

“Since some of these people will be positive to COVID-19 without being aware of it, wearing a face mask helps to decrease the probability that infected droplets are spread around and infect other people.

“In this light, our results suggest a simple and scalable intervention to promote intentions to use face masks: priming people to rely on their reasoning.”

Dr Capraro added: “We concluded that telling people to rely on their reasoning, rather than to rely on their emotion, increases their intentions to wear a face covering.

“This is a simple and scalable intervention that can be used to promote people's intentions to wear a face mask.”

The new study follows previous research by Dr Capraro and Helene Barcelo which discovered men are less inclined to wear face masks in public to protect against COVID-19 than women and more likely to agree that wearing one was either “shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says governments should encourage people to wear non-medical, fabric masks, especially in settings where physical distancing of at least one metre is not possible -- such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.

The new research paper by Dr Capraro and Dr Barcelo states: “Wearing a face covering represents a significant change in people’s habitual behaviour, we might expect that people would be reluctant to wear one.

“It follows that developing mechanisms that favour the use of face masks is crucial to slow down COVID-19 transmission and flatten the curve of the spread.

“Several national or local governments have taken the hard decision of making the use of face coverings mandatory in several contexts

“However, since it is impossible to monitor the behaviour of every person, even in places where wearing a face covering is mandatory, explicit laws should be complemented by implicit behavioural nudges aimed at directing people’s behaviour towards the desired one.”

The research, which is due to be peer reviewed, has been published online.

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