The game of mask wearing

Now that we are back to level 2 lockdown in New Zealand (apart from Auckland where it is level 3) the issue of “should we wear a mask” has cropped up.

A lot of “words” have been spread across the internet on the issue, with people arguing about their effectiveness, complaining about how it hurts their “liberty and freedom”, and people saying they don’t like how it makes it harder to breath – hence why random idiots on the street feel empowered to yell at people who wear a mask, without realising that their willingness to lash out at other people makes them sound simultaneously stupid and scared.

But I digress before I’ve even gotten started – when it comes to wearing masks this tweet raises a great point:

I made a similar point when I was teaching on Thursday (having come in with a mask) – so I thought it could be fun to think about it a bit more here.

The mask externality

I’m going to look at this whole situation as involving a case where wearing a mask won’t prevent me from catching COVID – but if I had it, the mask will reduce how much I spread it. In that way there is no personal benefit from wearing the mask, but my action helps others.

In that case we have a pretty clear externality – your decision to inconvenience yourself in a mask reduces transmission and so protects others from the disease. This is pretty consistent with how masks are described!

Now the key issue with it being an externality is that the knuckleheads I’ve described above don’t face the consequences of their own actions – their refusal to wear a mask doesn’t lead to them being more vulnerable, they just increase the chance everyone else will catch the disease.

So we would like a way to internalise this externality. Subsidising masks, mandating their use, paying people who wear them (eg a random lottery), all offer options.

But there is something else that makes use of the fact that the people who shout abuse at others are really just scared and are lashing out at others because of their embarrassment – the recognition that this is a coordination game!

The mask coordination game

If you are the only person wearing a mask you feel weird – like something from a budget version of a Star Wars movie. You start to think that others are judging you, that people will think you are “overreacting”, and that you might be wearing it backwards and so will look even more ridiculous.

In that environment you don’t want to wear a mask, even if you do want to protect others.

If everyone is wearing a mask you feel weird not wearing one – like the type of person who has pushed in front of everyone in a line without realising there was a line! You start to think that everyone is judging you, that you are selfish and aren’t taking this seriously enough, and you might even pull up your jersey over your mouth to make a pretend mask.

In that environment you want to wear a mask, even if you don’t particularly care about the people around you.

Here, the actions of individuals are strategic complements (much like working from home) and as a result if we can nudge a few more people towards wearing masks it can lead us to an equilibrium where everyone wears them – as opposed to one where no-one does.

In a world where most people wear masks, the prevalence of the disease falls – this would help to protect those who are vulnerable and can’t wear masks (due to poverty or genuine breathing difficulties) and also protect those who are too pigheaded to wear one (whose main difficulty is just being a pain in the ass). And that is success.

So lets remember that by wearing a mask when we go out we help to normalise it for other people, which in turn both protects us and others around us.

Also remember not to judge those who aren’t wearing a mask too harshly, as they either have genuine reasons and are facing a really difficult time as a result – or they are an incredibly insufferable prick and are facing a really difficult time as a result.

Be kind, get a mask on (if you can), and lets get this thing eliminated again.