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Masks, norms and behaviour change - the time has come

man on train in mask

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings – and masks! 

Over pressed brains will have remembered two things from the Prime Minister's announcement on 24 August: the extension of Level 3 plus the mention of ‘mandatory’ and ‘masks’ in the same sentence. 

"In a world where 2020 has frankly, been terrible, we are strong, we have been kind, and we are doing really well." Jacinda Ardern

At the start of this “terrible” period, as Jacinda described it, we were adrift, without the social norms that generally direct our behaviour and decision making. We couldn’t look to how others were behaving because it was a new situation with no social norms. Instead we needed to be told what to do and what was expected of us – these societal level norms are critical when we encounter new situations. 

Despite our very loose culture and strong independent streak, we did, for the most part, do what was asked of us. And, it worked. We struggled a bit with the concept of ‘winning’ when we were losing so much – economically, personally and socially – but we believed in the end goal and that it was achievable. 

owl and pussy cat

Making masks the norm

The world-famous bubble burst when Covid reappeared in the community. Yes, we knew how to behave as regards social distancing and we could see other people’s behaviour as a guide to our own behaviour, but we didn’t see people wearing masks. And wearing a mask is very visible behaviour, so it’s clear if it has become a social norm. It hasn’t.

Making mask wearing mandatory in very specific circumstances was a smart move because making them mandatory for everyone, all of the time, was going to be tough to achieve with no normative behaviour to copy. Narrowing the behaviour to public transport is likely to result in more compliance, and as a by-product confirmation of the social norm and will override personal norms about wearing masks in general. 

And on a lighter note, one of the other verses from Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem of The Walrus and the Carpenter seems equally apposite to the return of the virus. 

The moon was shining sulkily, 
      Because she thought the sun 
Had got no business to be there 
      After the day was done — 
“It’s very rude of him,” she said, 
      “To come and spoil the fun.” 

Learn more about behaviour change

If you’d like to understand more about how to use personal and social norms to change behaviour, join our webinar - click here to learn more or just complete the form below.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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