By Adam Tschorn/Los Angeles
Darth Vader, the Minnesota Vikings and Mike Pence, who’s wearing a “Make America Great Again” face mask, walk into a hotel.
That may sound like the setup to a very funny joke, but it also hints at how to solve a deadly serious problem: getting more people — particularly the swaggeringly toxic mask-averse males of the species — to don face coverings in public to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Although there’s certainly no shortage of antimask women out there (including a few in my own family tree), we’re focusing specifically on men here for two reasons.
First, men are statistically more adversely affected by Covid-19 than women.
Second, a recently released study authored by researchers Valerio Capraro of London’s Middlesex University and Helene Barcelo of the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley found that in comparing the mask-wearing intentions of men and women, men are less likely than women to wear face coverings.
That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has watched the president of the United States and his No 2, the latter of whom happens to be the chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, fly in the face of science by not covering their own faces in public.
Or maybe your lack of surprise comes from the curious sight of a family unit who has caught your eye: The mother and children are dutifully mask-clad out in public but, for some reason, the father is not.
It was the latter scenario happening on a Berkeley street that inspired mathematician Barcelo to crunch the numbers on gender differences and mask-wearing, she explained to The Times.
“They were outside on bicycles — a papa, a mama and two kids,” Barcelo said. “And the mama and the two kids were wearing masks. And the papa had a mask, but it was around his neck, not on his face. I thought, ‘OK, maybe there is something there,’ and Valerio and I decided to look into it more carefully.”
Posted online in mid-May, the resulting study of 2,459 US participants, “The Effect of Messaging and Gender on Intentions to Wear a Face Covering to Slow Down Covid-19 Transmission,” offers an interesting glimpse into why some men resist the call to cover up — and provides some clues as to how to influence that behaviour.
In addition to finding that men are less inclined to wear a face mask, the study found that men are less likely than women to believe they will be seriously affected by the coronavirus.
Further, it found a big difference between men and women when it came to the self-reported negative emotions that come with that simple strip of fabric across the face.
As study co-author Capraro explained, “We asked (participants to rank) on a scale of one to 10 how much they agreed with five different statements: ‘Wearing a face covering is cool,’ ‘Wearing a face covering is not cool,’ ‘Wearing a face covering is shameful,’ ‘Wearing a face covering is a sign of weakness’ and ‘The stigma attached to wearing a face covering is preventing me from wearing one as often as I should.’
“The two statements that showed the biggest difference between men and women,” Capraro said, “were, ‘Wearing a face covering is a sign of weakness’ and ‘The stigma attached to wearing a face covering is preventing me from wearing one as often as I should.’”
Armed with this sort of insight, might it actually be possible to hack the male mind to motivate more men to wear a face covering in public? To answer that question, we sought the input of folks who’ve studied the topic, including the study’s authors, a couple of psychologists who focus on men’s behaviour and a medical historian.
Together, their suggestions make up a broad, four-pronged strategy we’re going to call the M.A.S.K. Approach.
M — Make it about the community, not the individual.
A big part of Capraro and Barcelo’s study focused on trying to figure out what sort of messaging would be most effective in convincing mask-averse folks (male and female) to wear one.
It found that emphasising the benefit to one’s community rather than one’s family, one’s country or one’s self was the biggest motivator.
However, they note, and it bears repeating here, the biggest motivator of all is a mandatory mask order.
A — Appeal to patriotism.
If mask-hating men won’t wear face coverings for the health and safety of the fragile flower on her fainting couch or for the old and infirm, perhaps they’ll do it for God and country.
S — Stick with the stereotypes.
If stereotypical masculine behaviour is part of the problem, might it be part of the solution? Could some of the traits traditionally associated with manliness be Trojan Horsed to increase the number of masked men? Glick, who back in April penned a piece for Scientific American titled “Masks and Emasculation: Why Some Men Refuse to Take Safety Precautions,” thinks the approach might work.
K — Key into humour.
While the coronavirus pandemic is certainly no laughing matter, Englar-Carlson thinks getting more guys to wear face coverings might be.
“I think (humour) definitely could work,” he said. “A lot of men communicate this way. They have serious conversations but in humorous ways because (they) can’t fully own it so (they) joke about it. For example, guys in the locker room might be talking about the difficulties in (their) marriages but by joking about it. It’s kind of a code they use to communicate, to admit they’re having a hard time.”
Until there’s a sweeping nationwide campaign, humorous or otherwise, aimed at getting more men to wear face coverings in public, it’s up to every individual, business and local government entity to use all four prongs of the M.A.S.K. approach to convince mask-averse men to do the right thing.
That Independence Day bash you’re hosting, for example? That could be a good opportunity to put out a stack of star-spangled face coverings. (After all, who can say no to Old Glory on the Fourth of July?)
Even if deployed skilfully and surreptitiously, none of these man-brain hacks will be totally effective.
As mentioned, the most effective way to increase mask-wearing (for both genders) is to simply make the order mandatory. That’s what California Governor Gavin Newsom did in response to a spike in Covid-19 cases.
However, as the University of Michigan’s Navarro points out, getting every last man, woman and child to wear a mask is not really the goal that matters.
“Whether it’s through vaccination, (PSA) campaigns or social distancing measures, you’re never going to get a 100% compliance. You try and get as high (a percentage) as you can,” he said. “We now know from a lot of modelling studies and studies involving masks that if we can get over 50% — preferably 60 to 80% of compliance with mask orders — we could really drive this epidemic to a manageable level between now and the time we get a vaccine.” TCA/DPA
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