With growing support in the UK for using face masks (or DIY face coverings) to help fight coronavirus, and new guidance from the government recommending that people wear face coverings in crowded enclosed spaces, a key challenge now for behavioural science is to ensure people are using them correctly.
To help address this issue, we ran an online experiment, involving 4,099 UK adults, to test various ‘how to wear a face mask / covering’ infographics, including ones made by the European CDC, Singapore Ministry of Health, and World Health Organisation.
We randomly assigned people to see either:
- one of these three designs;
- text from the top of the UK government’s ‘how to wear a face covering’ guidance;
- a BIT-designed infographic which summarised the UK guidance using a bright, clear design with minimal text (a template which performed well in a previous experiment);
- or a control group which saw no guidance.
We then tested how well people recalled the below key steps for safely wearing a face mask / covering:
- Face mask / covering should cover your mouth, nose, and chin.
- Avoid touching the front after you put it on – take it off by the ears.
- Wash your hands before and after using it, and if using a covering, wash it regularly with other laundry.
Like in our ‘how to wash your hands’ experiment, we found that three designs did particularly well in terms of recall of the key steps and positive sentiment about the design itself. The 3 top performers, shown below, were the designs by the World Health Organisation, the Singapore Ministry of Health, and BIT. These designs had the joint-highest overall recall score (82%, compared to 77% for people who saw no guidance or the gov.uk guidance) and were seen as being particularly trustworthy and easy to understand.
Although the BIT design performed well, the data suggested room for improvement. For example, some participants left constructive feedback suggesting changes (e.g. reword “’closely cover’ to something more clear, make the exemptions at the bottom stand out more). Additionally, only 2 in 3 people who saw the BIT design recalled the specific guidance to avoid touching the front of the mask / covering after putting it on. We think both issues could be addressed with design tweaks, and like always, we would ideally test the new, iterated version in a new experiment to confirm it was meaningfully more effective.
The experiment also revealed three other interesting insights regarding facemask behaviours and intent.
1. About 1 in 3 use face masks / coverings now, but 87% are willing to
Across all 4,099 people in the experiment, 30% said they had worn a face mask / covering when outside in the last 7 days, but 87% were willing to wear one. This level of willingness remained high even when splitting the results by the groups least and most likely to report recently using a face mask / covering (older White men living in the North, and middle aged Asians living in London respectively).
2. 84% say face masks / coverings help protect others (not just themselves)
One way that face masks / coverings can help reduce the spread of coronavirus is by preventing people who have the virus from spreading the disease to others by breathing out droplets – this is particularly important for a disease like coronavirus where it has been estimated that around 50% of transmission events happen before the sick person has even developed any symptoms. So, while it remains essential for people to self-isolate once they develop any of the main coronavirus symptoms (now defined in the UK as a fever, continuous cough, or a loss of smell or taste), wearing a face mask / covering can help reduce the likelihood that they spread the virus to others in the time before they develop noticeable symptoms.
Fortunately, in the experiment, we found that the vast majority of the 4,099 respondents (84%) already think of face masks / coverings as a way to protect other people, not just the wearer.
3. 15% of people who did not see any guidance had potentially dangerous misconceptions about how to use face masks / coverings
Among participants in the control group, who saw no guidance about how to safely use face masks / coverings, we found that ~15% thought that the official guidance was to:
- wear face masks / coverings loosely enough to allow air in at sides, or
- pull down the face mask / covering if you need to cough or sneeze
Both are incorrect – and in fact could be potentially harmful if actually followed in practice. Only about 10% of people who saw the BIT design had these same misconceptions – a 33% improvement.
Given that the UK government, transport authorities and general population are now all moving towards greater use of face coverings, disseminating well-evidenced ‘how to’ face covering guidance, like the materials which did well in this experiment, will be an essential next step to help keep the virus contained as the country begins to emerge out of lockdown.