Economist Urges Masks As ‘Statement Of Social Solidarity’

Aug 26, 2020

Robert Frank
Credit Cornell University

A leading economist told an online Rapid City audience Wednesday that the power of one person’s example can be harnessed to spread mask-wearing during the pandemic. 

Robert Frank is a professor at Cornell. His latest book is titled “Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work.” 

The book examines how a person’s social circle can influence their behavior, and how that power might be harnessed for the broader good. 

Frank explained the concept during a live YouTube appearance as part of the Morning Fill Up speaker series. 

“The social psychologists have one principal that they stress probably more than any other. They sum it up by saying, ‘It’s the situation, not the person,’” Frank said. “And what they mean is that when we see somebody do something and we want to know, ‘Why did she do that?’ Our tendency, our impulse, is to think about traits of character or personality – what kind of a person would do such a thing as that.  

“No, that’s the wrong way to think about it, they say. It’s much more instructive to look at the social forces that surrounded the actor in the moment of decision.” 

He used the example of parents worried that their daughter might smoke. 

“What you really need to know is the fraction of her close friends who smoke. If that number goes up – say if it bumped up from 20 percent to 30 percent – she becomes 25 percent more likely to either become or remain a smoker.” 

And Frank said the same concept applies to masks during a pandemic. 

“I have a mask, and whenever I see somebody, even if they’re on the other side of the road, I pull it up. Not because I have any information that it will make any difference if I pull it up or not – the science I’ve read suggests that there’s no material impact if you’re on the other side of the street from somebody – but just for the sake of making a statement of social solidarity: ‘We’re in this together, I’m looking out for you, I hope you’ll look out for me.’ It’s a statement that it seems well worth my trouble to make.” 

Frank criticized the libertarian streak that has led some Americans to avoid wearing masks. 

“We know now, I think, within a very high level of certainty that failure to wear a mask makes other people much more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, much more likely to get it.” Frank said. “If you get it, you’re more likely to suffer lifelong serious health consequences or even die. And so if you don’t wear a mask, is there any realistic question about whether you’re causing harm to others? It doesn’t seem that that is a question that even ought to be subject to debate at this point. 

“And so if you think of yourself as a thoughtful libertarian, unless you feel like libertarians have the right to walk up to people on the street and punch them in the nose – and I haven’t met one who thinks he has the right to do that – you shouldn’t logically think that you have the right to appear in crowded places without wearing a mask.”

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