As an environmentalist studying the institutions of collective action, I am always interested in the psychology of mass behaviours.
Like many of you, I ride the shuttle bus at NUS almost every day – it’s cheek to jowl during peak hours – just before 9 a.m. and around lunch time. Even today, in the middle of 2019-nCoV, there are few masks worn.
It was the same when I went for a dance performance at the University Cultural Centre last weekend – lots of hand sanitisers, very few masks. I was curious about the difference so I spoke to a few students who wear masks.
One had just completed her LOA. She said: “It makes others feel better.” But when I tell her I don’t need a mask to feel better, she says “My parents insist.”
I assured her, “I understand. Everyone decides based on his own comfort level.”
Yesterday evening, when I delivered food to students on Leave of Absence (LOA), I didn’t wear a mask. This requires no special heroism – they are not sick, and neither am I. The current virus spreads through water droplets, and I would be to stand next to an infected person for about 10 mins, at a distance of less than 2 metres, for him to infect me.
At the same time, there are many students who prefer to wear masks – and we provide these to any volunteers who require one.
After all, on television and on social media, you can see people in cities who are more than 90% masked up. And last night was the night of the spectacular grocery run. It could be an action bias – people may feel the need to do something to help themselves in a situation which they feel is outside their control. Or, it could be the force of conformity.
I recently published an interesting human lab experiment on the force of conformity on the willingness to drink recycled drinking water (RDW). Groups of people were given real money, some basic information about recycled drinking water and had to decide on whether they would pick RDW or mineral water.
Group 1 was the control group, Group 2 was given detailed technical and operational information about RDW, Group 3 information which shows that a minority of people accepted RDW, and Group 4 information which shows that a majority was willing to drink.
Where the price of RDW was either 50% higher or 50% lower than that of mineral water, people picked the cheaper option. So the economic incentive operated as usual. It is the middle portion where the prices for the two options are equal which is intriguing.
Conformity and rationality
Subjects in the high acceptance group were 2.6 times more likely compared to those in the control group to choose RDW. That is, people are more likely to accept recycled drinking water if they know many others did so. Conformity per se appears to provide sufficient reason for people to behave in a certain way, more so than information or economic incentives.
What does this have to do with masks and panic buying?
We know that conformity influences behaviour even in difficult and controversial decisions – and hence social norms have a greater impact than rational information - even in controversial decision-making.
Even as governments try to limit fear and panic buying of face masks by explaining the nature of the virus, the dynamics of virus spread, and the unsustainable use of masks which need to be discarded after 24 hours, something simpler could be at work – the power of social norms. Most of us don’t wear masks just because we don’t see other people doing so.
The Chinese ambassador Hong Xiaoyong to Singapore visited NUS on Thursday and I took the opportunity to ask him for his views about wearing masks, which some students from China preferred to wear.
His reply: “This is Singapore, and that’s what the Government says – you don’t need to wear a mask if you are healthy.”
It was an elegant reply – it provided room for respect for local norms, but carried no censure for people who chose to act according to their own preferences. His own behaviour however held a certain power. He met with some Chinese students at an informal dialogue – he was not wearing a mask, and none of the students did.
In NUS, the wearing of masks – or the foregoing of it – is not hard wired. We advise and demonstrate through our behaviour what we think is needed for good health, but if you wanted to do more, that is a matter of personal preferences.
The other direction however, doing less, is not permitted.