Can wearing masks falsely be indicative of someone’s dishonesty?
Imagine two strangers walking down the street. At first glance, can you tell if one of them is more honest than the other? Of course not. But now, thanks to Covid-19, maybe you can. Take a look at how they wear their masks in places where masks are required.
Suppose a person wears their mask correctly, covering their mouth and nose. Suppose the other person has only their mask on their chin, or maybe around their neck. From this difference alone, it could be that the second person is also more likely to be dishonest in other situations.
At least that’s what economist Yosef Tobol of the Jerusalem College of Technology and his colleagues found in a recent study published in the journal. Economic letters. Their study was conducted in June 2020 in Israel, at a time when masks had to be worn outdoors and violators were fined heavily by police. The experimenters recruited 100 people from the streets to participate in the study who were wearing their masks correctly, as well as 100 people wearing their masks only on their chin or neck.
As part of the experiment, everyone was given the task of dying under the cup, a widely used behavioral measure of dishonest behavior. The way the task is performed is that you are asked to roll a dice in private where no one else can observe you, with the understanding that there will be a greater financial reward the higher the roll you earn. In Tobol’s study, a declared roll of 1 brought in 1.2 euros, 2, 2.4 euros, and so on. At the time, one euro was equivalent to just over one US dollar.
For the dying under the cup task, the question is whether the participants will on average report a higher result than chance would predict (chance = 3.5). This is indeed what Tobol found. For the group wearing their masks correctly, the mean score reported was 4.05.
This result is consistent with many studies of honest behavior using a variety of different measures. These studies tend to find that people are willing to cheat to some extent if they think they can get away with it and be rewarded in the process. At the same time, participants tend not to cheat as much as they could. Why not just report a “6”, for example, regardless of the result? Current honesty research often attributes this restricted cheating behavior to a desire to preserve our ability to see ourselves as honest people.
What about the group of people who wore their masks incorrectly? What did they report getting in the dice roll task? There, the reported mean roll was 4.91, which is a significant difference from the 4.05 in the first group. This second group as a whole was ready to break the Covid-19 safety rules, and they were also ready to break the rules in another situation as well.
This fits with the explanation provided by Tobol as to why these people would have their masks on their chin or neck in the first place. Tobol speculates that they could quickly remove their mask properly in the presence of the police to avoid a fine, but otherwise did not care to comply with the requirement. Outward appearance of conformity, with hidden deception. Just like in the task of rolling the dice.
At this point, it is natural to wonder about a third group, namely those who wore no masks at all. Fortunately, Tobol has studied them as well. For every 100 people on the street who were not wearing a mask, their reported score was 4.21. Slightly above 4.05 for the masked group, but not a statistically significant difference. At the same time, it is well below 4.91 for the inappropriate mask wearing group.
Initially, we would have expected the unmasked party to cheat most of the three on the dice task, as they were simply breaking the rules. But on second thought, the data makes sense. These are people who make no attempt to deceive anyone. They blatantly violate the demands of the public.
Thus, the way people wear their masks, when required, could be a very visible indicator of their level of honesty. At the same time, we shouldn’t read too much into these results. They must be reproduced in different countries and with larger sample sizes. Other measures of honest behavior should also be used, in addition to the task of rolling the dice. After all, cheating at this task doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is generally dishonest. It is therefore clear that many more studies need to be carried out.
Someday, however, we may be able to predict people’s dishonesty just by reading it directly on their faces.