Personalizing masks to fight the spread of Covid


One of the most effective strategies in the fight against the pandemic is also one of the cheapest: FFP2 masks are an effective means for curbing the spread of COVID-19. So why are we seeing such a strong anti-mask sentiment in the population? How can people be convinced to wear the much-maligned piece of cloth? Researchers at WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) have come up with an unconventional suggestion: They recommend personalizing face masks.

Johanna Palcu and Martin Schreier from WU’s Department of Marketing teamed up with Chris Janiszewski from the University of Florida to conduct three studies to investigate how people can be made to wear masks without being forced to do so. The result: If people are able to express their individuality through their masks, they are more likely to wear them as well. The mask is no longer seen as a restriction. Instead, it becomes a means of self-expression.

Conventional strategies are not enough

So far, governments have framed the request to wear a mask in classic textbook fashion: They have stressed that wearing a mask is a sign of social responsibility and that failure to wear a mask leads to negative consequences for the general public. New insights indicate, however, that emphasizing social responsibility alone has a very limited effect on people’s behavior. This is also true for other safety measures such as washing hands and avoiding crowds.
As a matter of fact, anti-mask sentiment is still widespread, which is evidenced by anti-mask protest groups around the world, such as Germany’s “Querdenker” and the French “anti-masques” movement. The reasons why people refuse to wear masks are not only physical (e.g. not being able to breathe properly, discomfort) but also psychological, for example feeling disguised, de-individualized, stigmatized, or restricted in one’s freedom of expression.  These motives are not addressed by calls for showing social responsibility.

New approaches for new solutions

To increase the acceptance of mask wearing, the researchers propose a fundamentally different approach, based on the realization that people are much more likely to comply with requests if those requests are in line with their individual needs, in this case the need for self-expression. But how can a masks express someone’s individuality? Self-expression is often based on the choice of goods that people buy, for example clothes. In addition, self-expression is also achieved by customizing or personalizing products so that they reflect the owner’s identity and personality. In this way, the product tells a story about its owner, which has important consequences: Prior research has shown that participating in the design or construction of a product increases the perceived value of the product and enhances the owners’ beliefs about the efficacy of the product.

If people had a chance to personalize their FFP2 masks, e.g. by choosing different colors or patterns, or by adding text or images to be printed on the masks, they could gain more personal benefit from wearing their masks.

Background and methods

In the three studies carried out, the researchers not only found a positive correlation between mask personalization and the frequency of mask usage in the general population (the more personalized a mask, the more likely it is to be worn), they also made direct observations confirming that people wear their masks more frequently if they are given an opportunity to personalize them.

In the key field experiment carried out on the WU Vienna campus between lockdowns, participants were first asked to personalize a mask to reflect their own personal style by adding different patches and texts. In addition, they were then asked to complete a shopping task. Half of them were given the mask they had personalized earlier (personalized mask condition), while the others were handed a plain white mask (control condition). The result: In the personalized mask condition, participants were over 20% more likely to wear their mask during the shopping task than the members of the control group.

The study
Johanna Palcu, Martin Schreier, Chris Janiszewski: “Facial mask personalization encourages facial mask wearing in times of COVID-19” Available at:

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