The words “please wear a face mask” is on almost every sign that’s posted in the windows of grocery stores, hair salons, and shops.
In many places it’s now mandatory to wear a mask and while the a lot people have embraced the new norm, in some parts of the U.S., the requirement to put on a mask has brought about political protests, arrests and violence. In fact, a security guard in Michigan was killed after telling a customer to put on a mask.
And a lot of it comes down to how things are communicated.
There’s been plenty of critique on the inconsistencies of messaging from public health officials and how that’s made it harder to get people to start wearing a mask.
And while bad messaging from higher ups definitely hasn’t helped, there are other factors at play.
As science journalist Lydia Denworth explained in Scientific American in order to make mask wearing the default standard “a new behavior must first ascend to the status of a social norm”.
And while it’s not always easy to create a social norm, it’s not impossible either.
“Social norms can change rapidly,” social psychologist Catherine Sanderson of Amherst College told Scientific American in an interview, “and it doesn’t take everybody.”
For example, in an online experiment published in Science researchers found that in order to change social norms you just need 25% of people to be on board.
“When a community is close to a tipping point to cause large-scale social change, remarkably, just by adding one more person, and getting above the 25% tipping point, their efforts can have rapid success in changing the entire population’s opinion.,” explained lead author and associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania Damon Centola.
Conversely, if it’s below the 25% the efforts fail.
However, even once mask wearing becomes a social norm research has shown that social norms only influence behavior when it’s activated at the moment of the behavioural decision.
As psychology and marketing professor at Arizona State University, Robert Cialdini, and colleagues concluded in one study: “under naturally occurring conditions, if there is no salience, behavior will be largely unguided by normative considerations. […] It is misguided to expect that because norms are constantly in place within a person or culture, they are constantly in force”.
In other words, only when someone’s attention is focused on that norm when deciding what to do will they revert to the social norm. In psychology this is known as the focus theory of normative conduct.
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