Study finds that wearing really is about caring

May 11, 2020

Wanting to better understand people’s behavior when it comes to precautionary measures against COVID-19 like mask wearing, a business professor started a research project — and discovered that most people are choosing to be socially responsible.

 Graphic about mask wearing
Graphic about mask wearing

Jun He remembers the first time he wore a mask for health reasons. Visiting his parents in Beijing, China, a few years ago, the College of Business associate professor went outside during rush hour and put on a N95 face mask to protect himself from the smog.

“I did not like wearing it. My glasses would fog. It hurt around the ears. It was not comfortable. But without it, my throat would burn from breathing in the pollution — I had a direct benefit. So I wore it.”

When the Coronavirus pandemic began to disrupt lives in the U.S. — and it became well-known that some populations weren’t as vulnerable — He wondered if the average person would choose to wear a mask if it helped others, but didn’t have a known direct benefit to the wearer.

Jun He standing in front of wall that reads: College of Business, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Fairlane Center, College of Education, Health, and Human Services
Associate Professor Jun He

So, in early April, He created a survey to study people’s willingness to wear face masks as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. Because the results may have implications for public health policies and government actions to cope with the pandemic, he then sent preliminary research findings to the State of Michigan’s COVID-19 Response Team on Health and Human Services in mid-April, prior to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to wear them in public places.

Among his findings from nearly 700 collected responses (which continually evolve with participation):

  • Almost 60 percent of respondents personally knew someone infected with COVID-19
  • Most respondents are not scared of getting sick themselves, they are concerned with the health of people who are vulnerable (older adults, immunocompromised)
  • Nearly 90 percent of people — if they have access to a face masks — wear them regularly as a precautionary measure, even though the benefit in doing this is greater for others
  • Most are taking precautionary measures — like frequent hand washing and frequent social distancing — seriously (98.2 percent)
  • In the case of having a surplus of face masks, about 96 percent of respondents expressed willingness to donate to people in need.

He said the social and behavioral theories are at play, which is the more people you see wear one, the more accepted it becomes and the more comfortable you are wearing one too.

“Imagine wearing a face mask at Kroger two months ago. What signal would that have sent? You would get stares and feel uncomfortable. Today, that has completely changed. When people wear them now, it sends out a signal that they care about this crisis and about you.”

But, more importantly, He believes a newer business theory called social responsibility consumption behavior also explains mask wearing. Typically the theory is associated with environmentally-friendly brands or brands that give to those in need (think: Patagonia or TOMS), but He says it applies here too.

“People are choosing to invest in wearing face masks. They think, ‘COVID-19 is not a disease about me. It’s a pandemic that impacts the whole society. What can I do to help?’,” He said. “This is a sign of people not acting in their own interests, but in the interests of society at large. The results of the survey were very encouraging — we are acting in the best interest of others, even if it doesn’t immediately benefit us. Adapting to a new behavior that is not personally beneficial is not something I frequently see in my research.”

He typically studies the marketability and viability of wearable technology — for example, He’s research includes the first published study on why the once lauded Google Glass failed so miserably (answer: the smart glass’ built-in always-on camera made wearers concerned that they were recording someone’s actions without consent, which may lead to uncomfortable social situations) — to better understand the consumer behavior and gather information that may help businesses in the development stage of a product.

While masks could be argued to be a wearable technology — because you wear them and they offer a function — they don’t offer added convenience like smartwatches or activity trackers; masks are more of a utility item. 

So He was slightly surprised — with media coverage of unmasked protesters and others challenging safety-focused orders —  that answers on mask-wearing were overwhelmingly positive.

He said it makes him optimistic about the future. 

As a business professor, He is concerned about the economy and the effect a lasting pandemic will have on it. However, if people continue to be socially responsible and put themselves in uncomfortable situations — like wearing masks — to help others, it grows his confidence in the ability to safely reopen businesses.

“Results like these show that we realize that we are all connected. And the more we behave in a way that protects the people around us — and they act to protect you — the more quickly we will be able to adapt to whatever our new normal may be.”