To face mask or not to face mask? Covid etiquette is an experiment in human behaviour

To mask or not to mask? Along with scores of other things we never would have anticipated, whether or not to cover up our nose and mouth is the latest thorny issue in Covid etiquette. 

The answer from Boris Johnson is clear: in public spaces such as transport, bars, restaurants or other busy indoor places, we should wear a mask. 

But in some parts of the country, the Prime Minister might be losing this particular battle. Substantial numbers of people in both London and Manchester were not masking up last week, after the Government edict to wear them was was dropped. 

The Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have continued to keep mask rules in place on public transport.

Mr Burnham crafted what appears to be a brilliant PR statement for the Manchester city region, where he won in every single ward in the May elections: “This is a city-region built on doing the right thing by each other, and that will be demonstrated by continuing to wear our face coverings.”

Yet on a crowded tram, I felt like the man in the famous Bateman cartoon with my mask on, without any others in sight. 

The Prime Minister has inadvertently set up an interesting natural behavioural experiment. The last twenty years have seen an explosion in the number of scientific papers published on how behaviours and ideas either spread across human networks or, after an initial burst, just fade away. 

The basic premise is simple: in any given context, either you wear a mask or you don’t. The force behind this so-called binary choice is the subject of thousands of mathematical articles. 

Of course, in the real world, this is blurred. The same person may wear a mask in a crowded store but not wear one when going from the door to the table in a spacious restaurant, they might put one on in a busy pub, but not in an almost-empty supermarket. 

The immediate incentives around wearing masks are weak, they give little protection to the wearer, they rely instead on collective buy-in. The inconvenience in terms of time an effort to put a mask on and take it off are trivial.

Even the altruistic motives for wearing one are not overwhelming. Scientific literature has cast doubt over the efficacy of masks and how much protection they give to others. Much depends on varied factors such as the type of mask or how it is worn. 

For some, mask wearing has become a political exercise: Rugged individuals who resist the nanny state or caring, sharing liberals.

But both of these are confined to the minorities. For the most part, people are guided by social influence, what others are doing. The more that masks are seen to be worn, the more likely others will conform. Equally, as they are discarded, the social pressure to wear them is weakened. 

In the science of networks, there is a tipping point which will determine our mask etiquette; the proportion of people who wear masks may fall gradually and then, suddenly, this behaviour spreads. Only the hard core of wearers are left, in the same way that most Remainers have accepted the result of the Brexit vote and only the ultras cling to the faith.

Once again, the government risks being on the wrong side of public opinion, not as expressed in opinion polls but in actual behaviour.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 28th July 2021
Image: Annie Mole via Flickr

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.