Since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a global increase in the number of people wearing masks to limit the spread of illness. Now, new research co-authored by MIT scholars suggests that, in China at least, wearing masks also influences how people act.

The research, conducted across 10 studies focused on deviant behavior — such as running red lights, violating parking rules, and cheating for money — shows that people wearing masks were less likely to behave deviantly than those who were not wearing them. The researchers say this is not just happenstance, but that in China using masks increases moral awareness and thus spurs some people to be more rule-abiding.

“We found that masks, in China, function as a moral symbol that reduces the wearer’s deviant behavior,” says Jackson Lu, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a newly published paper detailing the findings.

As Lu and his co-authors note, a variety of factors, not just masks, can influence behavior. Overall, they estimate, mask-wearing accounts for about 4 percent of the variance in deviant behavior they observed, when comparing those wearing masks to those not wearing them.

“Mask-wearing explains a meaningful but reasonable proportion of the variance,” Lu says, adding: “We’re talking about likelihoods here.”

The paper, “Masks as a Moral Symbol: Masks Reduce Wearers’ Deviant Behavior in China During COVID-19,” appears today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors are Lu, who is the Sloan School Career Development Associate Professor of Work and Organization Studies; Lesley Luyang Song, a PhD student in marketing at Tsinghua University in China; Yuhuang Zheng, an associate professor of marketing at Tsinghua University; and Laura Changlan Wang, a PhD student at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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