September 2021

IZA DP No. 14715: When Face Masks Signal Social Identity: Explaining the Deep Face-Mask Divide during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nattavudh Powdthavee, Yohanes E. Riyanto, Erwin Wong, Jonathan Yeo, Qi Yu Chan

Published in: PLoS One, 2021, 16(6), e0253195

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and the vaccination program still rolling out, there continues to be an immediate need for public health officials to better understand the mechanisms behind the deep and perpetual divide over face masks in America. Using a random sample of Americans (N=615), following a pre-registered experimental design and analysis plan, we first demonstrated that mask wearers were not innately more cooperative as individuals than non-mask wearers in the Prisoners' Dilemma (PD) game when information about their own and the other person's mask usage was not salient. However, we found strong evidence of in-group favouritism among both mask and non-mask wearers when information about the other partner's mask usage was known. Non-mask wearers were 23 percentage points less likely to cooperate than mask wearers when facing a mask-wearing partner, and 26 percentage points more likely to cooperate than mask wearers when facing a non-mask-wearing partner. Our analysis suggests social identity effects as the primary reason behind people's decision whether to wear face masks during the pandemic.