To mask or not to mask? Understanding public health behaviors during COVID-19

Researchers from Osaka University examined how specific types of contextual changes, such as government recommendations and perceived behavior of others, influenced mask-wearing behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found a complex relationship between societal norms and individual behavior during the pandemic, indicating that future strategies for public health crises interventions should consider various factors and contexts, including cultural predispositions.

Personal mask-wearing rates (from February to October 2023)

Researchers from Osaka University find that mask-wearing behavior depends on complex relationships between context and social norms

Osaka, Japan – Historically, we have tried to learn from our responses to large-scale health emergencies to prevent future health crises, but the factors influencing public health behavior are deeply complex.

In a study recently published in Japanese Psychological Research, researchers from Osaka University examined how specific types of contextual changes, such as government recommendations and the perceived behaviors of others, influenced mask-wearing behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. They examined the influence of two different types of social norms: injunctive norms and descriptive norms.

Estimated mask-wearing rates in Japan (from April to October 2023)

Injunctive norms relate to social standards about appropriate behaviors, such as legal regulations, while descriptive norms are based on ideas about the typical behaviors of others. Research has shown that these norms have played a critical role in encouraging people to engage in preventative measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, little is known about how contextual changes modulate the influence of each norm on mask-wearing behavior, which the researchers at Osaka University aimed to address.

“We expected that individuals who were more motivated to conform with injunctive norms, referred to as system justification motivation, would be more likely to comply with government recommendations regarding mask wearing,” says lead author of the study Asako Miura. “To verify this, we examined the impact of such government recommendations and the mask-wearing behavior of others on mask-wearing choices during the pandemic.”

To do this, the researchers collected survey data from 1988 Japanese residents between February 2023 and October 2023. This period included significant moments of transition in injunctive norms, as well as the downgrading of COVID-19's classification under infectious disease law. 

“The results were surprising,” explains Hideya Kitamura, senior author. “Contrary to our expectations, we found no significant relationship between system justification motivation and individual mask-wearing rates, before or after the relaxation of governmental recommendations in March 2023.”

Random intercept cross-lagged panel model showing temporal changes in the association between mask-wearing behavior and descriptive norms

Furthermore, the relationship between descriptive norms and individual mask-wearing behavior was smaller than anticipated.

“We found that people in Japan, where mask wearing is a common behavior, continued to wear masks even after the public guidance was relaxed,” says Miura. “Given the large number of social and psychological influences at play, the COVID-19 pandemic is an important case study for examining the complex influence of specific circumstances on social behavior.

The techniques used in this study were able to reveal the intricacy of the relationship between mask-wearing behavior and social norms during the COVID-19 public health crisis, both in terms of system justification motivation and the mask-wearing behavior of others. Furthermore, this study contributes to our understanding of factors influencing compliance and behavioral adaptation in public health in a pandemic context. These factors should be considered when developing future public health strategies.

The article, “Behind the Mask: Analyzing the Dual Influence of Social Norms on Pandemic Behavior in Japan” was published in Japanese Psychological Research at DOI:

About Osaka University
Osaka University was founded in 1931 as one of the seven imperial universities of Japan and is now one of Japan's leading comprehensive universities with a broad disciplinary spectrum. This strength is coupled with a singular drive for innovation that extends throughout the scientific process, from fundamental research to the creation of applied technology with positive economic impacts. Its commitment to innovation has been recognized in Japan and around the world, being named Japan's most innovative university in 2015 (Reuters 2015 Top 100) and one of the most innovative institutions in the world in 2017 (Innovative Universities and the Nature Index Innovation 2017). Now, Osaka University is leveraging its role as a Designated National University Corporation selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to contribute to innovation for human welfare, sustainable development of society, and social transformation.

Published: 24 Apr 2024


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Global Strategy Unit

1-1 Yamadaoka, Suita,Osaka 565-0871, Japan

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The Nippon Foundation – Osaka University Project for Infectious Disease Prevention