BY MARK WILSON6 MINUTE READ
The science is certain at this point: Wearing a mask can help reduce the likelihood of being infected with COVID-19. But masks alone are far from perfect. Over the past two weeks, as masks have gone from optional to mandatory in many states, I’ve noticed a shift in behavior. I’ve seen people wearing masks at small get-togethers and people wearing masks in stores—all without observing the six feet of social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least they were wearing masks at all! Still, I wondered, could masks be creating unintended consequences? Could a mask provide such a strong sense of security that people have become lax in protecting themselves in all the other ways that are recommended?
“It’s a good question, and it’s a sensible hypothesis,” says J. Edward Russo, a professor of management and organizations and of marketing at the Johnson Graduate School of Management and a member of the Field of Cognitive Studies at Cornell University. Russo, along with two other experts in psychology and public health I spoke to for this piece, agreed: We should absolutely wear masks, but we should also be cognizant of the effect they might be having on our behavior.
Unintended consequences, and the false sense of security
Before Joyce Ehrlinger was an assistant professor at Washington State University, and before she took her current position researching behavioral insights at the investment company Robinhood, she wrote her dissertation at Cornell on a fascinating topic: unintended consequences.
In the world of design, unintended consequences are fairly common. Something is built with the best of intentions, but it causes surprise problems.
Ehrlinger points to crosswalks, trampoline guards, and pool floaties as all being seemingly beneficial developments that come with unintended consequences. “There are times when safety measures can do more harm than good,” she says….