Different cultures have different responses to policies and others’ behaviors, impacting the effectiveness of different implementations of policies. This new study focuses on mask wearing behavior across the world.
Behavioral responses influence the trajectories of epidemics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) reduced pathogen transmission and mortality worldwide. However, despite the global pandemic threat, there was substantial cross-country variation in the adoption of protective behaviors that is not explained by disease prevalence alone. In particular, many countries show a pattern of slow initial mask adoption followed by sharp transitions to high acceptance rates. These patterns are characteristic of behaviors that depend on social norms or peer influence. We develop a game-theoretic model of mask wearing where the utility of wearing a mask depends on the perceived risk of infection, social norms, and mandates from formal institutions. In this model, increasing pathogen transmission or policy stringency can trigger social tipping points in collective mask wearing. We show that complex social dynamics can emerge from simple individual interactions and that sociocultural variables and local policies are important for recovering cross-country variation in the speed and breadth of mask adoption. These results have implications for public health policy and data collection.