Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, those who refuse to wear a sanitary face mask in the presence of others have often been perceived as selfish, whereas those who wear a face mask are considered altruistic (e.g., Christakis, 2021; Kelleher, 2021). Yet, throughout evolution, individuals have evolved to use faces as the primary cue to identify one another (Allen, 2006) and because perceived anonymity has been associated to reduced prosocial behaviors and increased selfishness (Zhong, Bohns and Gino, 2010), with two pre-registered field studies, we consider the possibility that wearing a face mask serves to avoid having to behave altruistically.
Costs and benefits of helping and refusing to help
Prosocial behaviors refer to a general category of voluntary behaviors that are carried out with the intent of providing benefits to others. They may benefit other individuals, entire groups, or society as a whole (Penner et al., 2005). It comes as no surprise that “[a]ssisting others, donating to charity, cooperating with others, and intervening to save another person’s life are all acts that societies generally value” (Dovidio, 1984, p. 364). However, while these behaviors will—by definition—provide benefits to the recipient, they come at a cost to the benefactor (e.g., time, effort, money). Although prosocial behaviors can also provide material, social, psychological, or even physical gains (Brown & Brown, 2015; Cabral, Ozbay, & Schotter, 2014; Poulin & Holmann, 2013; Wand, Deng, & Schen, 2019) to the benefactor, if perceived costs outweigh the benefits people will typically decide not to provide help (for reviews, Batson, Ahmad, & Stocks, 2011; Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004; Rahal & Fiedler, 2021).
Importantly, while behaving prosocially may come at personal costs, refusing to do so is not without its own toll. Not helping someone in need may lead to social reproach. Because selfishness is not valued by social norms (Schlenker & Leary, 1982), behaving selfishly may lead to public censure and ostracism (Huang, Zhu, & Zhang, 2021). Given that “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships” (Baumeister & Leary, 2005, p. 497), they will be highly motivated to avoid the risk of being disliked or rejected (MacDonald & Leary, 2005). The risk of social reproach is all the more relevant when refusing to comply to an explicit and direct request for help, in which case “many people agree to things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.’” (Bohns, 2016, p. 120). In fact, individuals may prefer avoiding the social interaction altogether, rather than having to refuse helping someone (e.g., Andreoni, Rao, & Trachtman, 2017; Dana, Cain, & Dawes, 2006; DellaVigna, List, & Malmendier, 2012).
Hence, when deciding to help, individuals not only consider costs and benefits of helping but also the costs of refusing. If individuals perceive the costs of refusing as being higher, they may (unhappily) comply with the request. Here, we focus on a situation that reduces the risk of social reproach, and thus refusing to help is easier: when individuals are unidentifiable. In fact, individuals made 84% lower donations when their behavior was not observed and their names hidden, compared to when they were identifiable (Vesely & Klöckner, 2018), and the subjective belief that their behavior could be clearly identified increased individuals’ contribution behavior (Cress & Kimmerle, 2008; Kimmerle, Cress, & Hess, 2007). Similarly, Zhong et al. (2010) found that participants wearing sunglasses had an illusory sense of anonymity and behaved more selfishly than those wearing clear glasses. It is then plausible to expect that sanitary face masks would decrease compliance to helping requests.
The present research
The years 2020 and 2021 have been severely affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, and covering the face with masks is recommended and oftentimes mandatory in public settings to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. With the possibility that face masks could remain highly present in social contexts in post-COVID-19 years, the health, social and psychological consequences of face masks have been topics of interest in public debates and in research (e.g., Barrick et al., 2020; Beltran et al., 2021; Crandall & Bahns, 2021; Fatfouta & Trope, 2021; Grahlow et al., 2021; Shehu et al., 2021; Stajduhar et al., 2021; Williams et al., 2021).
While individuals who refuse to wear a mask have been accused of being selfish, we investigate the possible increase in selfishness of those who do wear a mask as a byproduct of the masks themselves. Because these masks cover the mouth and nose area, they hide a large portion of the face and may reduce the actual and perceived identifiability, which then may decrease the extent to which they behave prosocially. With two field studies, we provide a currently relevant and practical test of the theoretical relation between identifiability and prosocial behaviors. We approached individuals in public areas who were either wearing a face mask or not wearing one. These individuals were provided the opportunity to behave prosocially to various degrees by answering questions in a long survey. Verbal consent was obtained from all individuals who agreed to answer the survey. The first page of the survey informed them that the participation was voluntary and that they could stop at any time (which was also reminded on all pages of the survey). We also counted how many individuals refused to answer the survey in each group (Mask groups vs. No Mask group). In both studies, we compared the number of questions answered by individuals wearing a face mask and individuals not wearing one. Study 2 also examined the impact of wearing a face mask on the participant’s level of perceived identifiability. Both studies conform to the guidelines of the of the Austrian sanitary regulations in place during the data collection, the Declaration of Helsinki and the good scientific practice and recommendations of the European Union for Social Science and Humanities. According to the Ethics Committee of the University of Innsbruck, no ethical approval was required for this study as no identifiable human data was gathered and no intervention or manipulation took place in the context of this study. All data generated and analyzed during these studies as we followed the mentioned guidelines, as well as registrations, materials, and code are available on the OSF repository: https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/CRZM3.