On Masks

Do masks work or not? Are there harmful side-effects? These are questions that seem very simple, but the science on face coverings is shockingly weak. If you are a believer in the protective power of masks, you may cite any of a number of recent studies on the efficacy of masks which show reductions in transmissibility of up to 50% 1. If you don’t believe in this, then you may have heard that, although your mask may not stop you from getting infected it could reduce your viral load enough to prevent you from developing symptoms 2. And even if you don’t believe that, then you might try out a sort of Pascal’s Wager of germ theory: “Well I don’t know if masks work but what’s the big deal with wearing masks anyway? It’s only a minor discomfort and if there is even a small chance that it could protect me or someone else then really what’s the harm?”

As a mask skeptic myself, I would be tempted to counter that it is rather suspicious that it was only in the year 2020, after the onset of the most politicized pandemic in recent memory that the medical benefits of wearing a piece of cloth over your face finally became clear. I would want to point out that prior to 2020, the available evidence showed that masks have only a very weak, or perhaps no ability at all, to impede viral transmission in non-healthcare settings 3. And I might just cite the largest randomized control study ever performed on the efficacy of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic 4 as clear evidence that masks offer, at best, very weak protection for the wearer. Now, with that said the science on masks absolutely really is spotty at best, and so I could very well be wrong. However, I don’t believe that any of this actually matters.

Instead, I would like to offer a new way of thinking about face-masks and an entirely different reason for why you shouldn’t wear them. I think that people should not wear masks in public because:

  1. The threat posed by COVID-19 is not abnormal.
  2. The government is trying to pressure you into wearing them.

There is plenty of evidence to support premise 1 elsewhere on this site but in a nutshell: if you are older than 30 then you have likely lived through a deadlier period in your country’s history and if you are younger than 60 then the mortality risk that COVID-19 adds to you is likely negligible. If you can accept that the threat posed by COVID-19 is not abnormal and that you have never worn a face-covering in your life then you know from your own experience that you will probably be just fine if you don’t wear a mask now. If you can accept premise 1 then all that is needed is a reason why wearing masks might be harmful, this is the purpose of premise 2, which deserves a much more thorough explanation.

During the Korean war, those American POWs who ended up in Chinese prison camps were far more likely to inform on their fellow prisoners than were their counterparts imprisoned in North Korea. Successful escape attempts were, comparatively, extremely rare because usually a fellow inmate would divulge the escape plan to the prison guards before the plan could be executed. While the North Korean’s favored the use of harsh violence to keep their prisoners in line, the Chinese employed a subtle yet extremely powerful brainwashing technique. The Chinese method started with a simple request: admit that America is imperfect. Give an example of a small flaw with the capitalist system, and also a way that communism might have some advantage. These small requests came frequently, and then gradually the Chinese began asking for bigger and bigger concessions: expand upon why you think America could be improved, make a list of things wrong with America, give us your permission to read your list out over the camp radio and tell all the inmates that you wrote it. Over time they came to view themselves as being collaborators with the enemy, if only reluctant collaborators. When later asked why they had betrayed their fellow soldiers, they would say that they felt guilty but gave a rationalization for why they wanted to (or had to) do it anyway. Simple, yet incredibly effective, the Chinese had stumbled upon the psychological principles of commitment, and consistency, although they didn’t fully understand it at the time 5.

Humans have a strong urge to stick to and to defend decisions that they feel responsible for making, this is the principle of commitment. Humans have a strong urge to show an appearance of consistency with their past actions, to rationalize, and to modify their own beliefs to be consistent with the actions they have made, this is the principle of consistency. To exploit a person by using these principles, first pressure them to make a decision. The lighter and more subtle the pressure the better, because it helps a person to take responsibility for making the choice, but you must still apply enough pressure that the choice is actually made. As well, the more uncomfortable or the more ridiculous it feels to make this decision the better because it forces a person to create bigger rationalizations and more drastic changes to their beliefs in order to feel consistent with having made that decision. If the discomfort inflicted is too great, however, then the person may not do what you want and so it helps to start with smaller, less uncomfortable decisions first and work your way up by leveraging the principle of consistency to narrow the gap toward the next bigger decision until you finally reach your end goal.

So what about masks?

At first they asked you to stay home for your own safety. Just for two weeks, and it was easy enough to do, just sit at home and watch Netflix. Besides, it was all for your own safety so you wanted to do it anyway. Next the two weeks turned into months. It was no longer so much fun, but still it wasn’t so hard and you got to work from home or collect a government paycheck if you couldn’t, and sometimes you could go outside as long as you social distanced. Besides, you were saving people’s lives, so you wanted to do it anyway. Next they asked you to wear masks when you couldn’t social distance. Masks are uncomfortable, they make it hard to breathe and to see people’s faces and they are just a bit humiliating, but still, how hard is it to wear a piece of cloth over your face for a few hours when doctors and nurses wear them all day. Besides, you were slowing down the spread, so you wanted to do it anyway. Next they asked you to always wear a mask when in-doors and you could be fined if you didn’t, but the fine is just for the bad people who aren’t as smart as you, everybody else is wearing a mask. It’s not at all pleasant to wear masks all day, and now you might get mask breath and it all seems a little ridiculous to wear a mask from the door to your table in a restaurant only to take it off when seated but this is just something that you have to do. Besides, you were reducing the viral load of the vulnerable people around you and showing solidarity with your community so you wanted to do it anyway. Or maybe you aren’t so sure that you’re doing any good but you decided to just go along with everybody else and you want to fit in, or because everybody else is a brain-washed sheep and you could never convince them anyway, or because it’s just too hard to go against the government so there’s no use trying, or because you have to or you might lose your job, or because you just don’t really care about all this anyway.

But one way or another, it was your choice to do nothing, it was your choice to just go along with the rest of the crowd. You wanted to do it, anyway.

  1. IHME models show second wave of COVID-19 beginning September 15 in US.
  2. NY Times – Masks May Reduce Viral Dose, Some Experts Say
  3. Nonpharmaceutical Measures for Pandemic Influenza in Nonhealthcare Settings—Personal Protective and Environmental Measures
  4. Effectiveness of Adding a Mask Recommendation to Other Public Health Measures to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Danish Mask Wearers
  5. Robert B. Cialdini PhD, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion