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Will face masks become the new norm in Australia?


Dr Paul Harrison takes us through how Victorians are adjusting to wearing masks – and what it means for the rest of Australia.

Let's start with a simple truth: Wearing masks when you're out and about is very new and very unfamiliar for most Australians. And people don't like things that are unfamiliar. I think it's fair to say that none of us get up in the morning and think "yay, I get to wear a mask today".

But right now, the truth is that a face mask actually helps both you and your community. So how do we learn to adapt and adjust, especially when there are different levels of awareness and understanding?

This is about behavioural change, so we need to acknowledge that it will be incremental because any change in behaviour is difficult (and most people don't want to change). So it will take time.

This is also about public health and safety. It is similar to other public health campaigns – such as those for smoking or alcohol consumption. But in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a very strong sense of urgency and risk in not getting the message across to people quickly and not seeing that behaviour change (i.e. people wearing masks).

Research in this area of psychology actually tells us that how you frame a message has an effect on how people respond to it. Most public health messages and behavioural change campaigns focus on education. It's as if they are saying "if we just tell people the facts, they will change their behaviour", and that's not true.

So there are four key elements to successful messaging and behaviour change:

  1. Education. This tends to be the one that we move towards first. We tell people why they need to do what they need to do and how to do it. Without this information, you get a lot of people wondering what the point of the change is, which means they are less likely to support it.
  2. Enforcement. This relates to rules around the change and is how political action tends to work. It enforces the change through laws or fines, such as the $200 fine people in Victoria's Melbourne and Mitchell Shire areas now face if they don't wear a mask when they are outside (without a valid reason for doing so). This sends a message that there are consequences if you don't follow the rules.
  3. Engineering. This element is about changing the environment in which the behaviour happens. And that's about normalising the behaviour but it's also about making it as easy as possible for people to do it with as little effort as possible, through large scale changes. So, we should see design change, particularly in the context of making the behaviour we desire much easier for all the target groups (in this context, everyone, which is tricky). Different groups will have different needs, so we need to be cognisant of this in our design approach. We see that with things like seat belts and bike helmets.
  4. Environment. This is related to engineering and to adapting broader social norms, where we need to make it easier for people to adopt the behaviour change. So public spaces, workplaces, commercial environments need to adapt to and encourage the new behaviour through incentives, encouragement, reconfiguring spaces, and making the new behaviour so easy and commonplace that those doing it don't feel like they are doing something out of the ordinary.

With all four of these elements, you also have to think about "how does that distil down to what it is to be human?" so that the desired behaviour messaging and activities can reach as many people as possible.

And once it does, it starts to become normalised – which is where you see real change.

What about people who rebel?

Since masks became mandatory in the Victorian hotspots, there have been stories and videos on social media showing people who are very clearly not wearing masks and making a point of it.

Putting aside those who are specifically avoiding mask wearing as a political statement, it can be easy to criticise people or treat them as outsiders who aren't conforming correctly, but that response is not helpful for behaviour change (which is, ultimately, what we need). It's understandable, because people who are wearing masks want to feel validated by seeing others following these requirements, but it isn't helpful. In a way, it's similar to the situation that you have with Melbourne and the rest of the country, where other states and territories are saying "stay away from us" rather than showing empathy. So, what happens, in this type of situation, is that people become defensive.

This ties in with the social identity theory where people see themselves in the context of "in groups" and "out groups". So, if the in group feels like it's being attacked, it tends to become even more competitive, which strengthens the ties of the in group, and then leads them to look for evidence to distinguish themselves from the out groups. In groups also tend to see the heterogeneity (or complexity) within its in group, whereas they see the out group as being one homogenous (or similar) oppositional mass, which is also a defensive mechanism.

We might see that between Melbourne and the other states at some stage, but already we are seeing it with the people in Melbourne who are not wearing masks. When these people feel attacked, they usually become more defensive. So then we have this situation where the different groups start to think "we're all better than you". And without any empathy, this makes it really difficult to create the behaviour change that's needed.

The role of social identity

There are also issues around whether a person has what's known as an agentic orientation – which relates to qualities like independence, a sense that they feel they have to be competitive, that they feel they are autonomous and can do what they want, when they want.

The important thing, in terms of messaging, is that people with agentic orientations respond more to information that is about them. So "you" and "your health".

The opposite of this is communal orientation, which is more about relating with people (i.e. the community). So then you would say "our" and "our community" in the messaging.

Another factor is to consider how people respond to rules. Our response to rules can reflect our primal social mindsets. The spectrum goes from those people who respond positively to rules, notice rules around them, try to avoid mistakes, have strong impulse control, and love structure and order. While at the other end of the spectrum, personality types might be more sceptical about rules (especially those coming from a political source that they don't trust), willing to take risks, and are comfortable with disorder and ambiguity.

But shaming people or holding them in contempt, even if it makes us feel good, won't achieve much at all. An alternative approach is to remind everyone that the more thoroughly these new behaviours are practised, the sooner the restrictions can be relaxed.

So the public messaging has to vary and be a combination of empathy, correct information and reinforcing this idea that the knowledge is provisional.

When we argue that messaging has to be consistent, what we aren't saying is that the message has to be the same, but the underlying principles do need to be consistent. In this case: information is changing, we need to trust epidemiologists and progress can be small and incremental – but still successful.

So often the health sector is criticised when it doesn't achieve 100% compliance with these messages, but we don't apply that to other sectors or industries. So, we need to realise that small wins are successes – that's really important.

How are masks different from other public health messages?

We know that humans have this amazing ability to adapt and the critical thing to that is norms and legitimacy. Smoking is a really good example of this because at the beginning of the 80s, 41% of Australian men and 30% of women were smokers, and smoking was a mostly acceptable social norm. People had known for a long time that smoking was bad for their health, but people still smoked. So what happened was that there was a slow, incremental movement to the point where being a smoker now is outside the norm (the latest data shows only 16.6% of adult men and 12.8% of adult women are regular smokers in Australia).

It actually is more difficult to be a smoker now than it is to not smoke. But for us to get to this point, over a period of many decades governments introduced taxes on cigarettes, sequentially banned smoking in different venues, changed to packaging and television advertisements about the health risks.

Whenever a change happened, there was an outcry from those who felt they were being targeted. But what happened was that the norm went from being a smoker to being a non-smoker.

Most humans like to do what everybody else is doing. For the most part, we're not risk-takers. So if we see people like us doing something, as we're seeing with masks in Melbourne right now, it means that there is less risk for us to do that. And it is the right thing to do.

I think this is an interesting experience in public health messaging because it's been so consistent, so direct. And I think one of the things we've learned from this whole experience is the concept of doubt in medicine. What's been one of the most useful things to emerge from this era and pandemic is that science and medicine are constantly progressing and learning – and that doubt is actually a good thing. Because as we learn more, we make different decisions based on that information.

I think the difficulty you deal with in any behaviour change program is that often the people who are likely to cause the most harm are the ones who are also the hardest to get to. And we find that with smoking: the hardcore smokers are the ones that just are impossible to change. The hardcore non-mask-wearers are the ones who are going to be more likely to continue doing what they would usually do and are more likely to pick up the virus because of that.

So, I would say if at some point the New South Wales government (or any other state or territory) is thinking of introducing masks, it needs to practise those four elements – education, enforcement, engineering and environment – in combination, rather than relying on one single approach.

How masks will become a part of our fashion and identity

One factor that makes mask wearing different to smoking – or any other public health campaign – is that masks themselves have, up until now, only been designed for clinical settings.

If you think about clinical settings, or even places where epidemics have happened before, it's been conceived predominantly as a health issue, when in fact, this is now a lifestyle issue. And so, there is a lot to come in terms of mask wearing in Australia and other countries where it hasn't been common practice.

Certainly in parts of Asia, wearing masks has been a common practice for a long time – particularly after the SARS outbreaks.

We're in the early days of mask-wearing, so I have seen that places are selling out really quickly. But because it's going to be around for a while, there's a whole new industry coming up.

Australians tend to be pretty good consumers, so I think now that we are experiencing this, we will create masks that identify us. I think early on you'll see lots of black and blue masks but as time goes on, there'll be lots of variation.

Already we are seeing that people are wearing masks to reflect who they are – that's a really powerful thing and it's going to make it a lot easier for people to get used to wearing and seeing them.

There's a mentality of "I can control how my mask looks" and "I can express to others who I am through the things that I wear".

So people will find different ways to express their identity through the masks that they wear and I think Australians particularly like to wear their identities, so there will be all sorts of ways that people feel comfortable wearing masks – including the way the mask (or face covering) is designed.

This brings us back to the idea of engineering behaviour change. It sounds crass, but there's still a marketing exercise going on, which is selling products.

Different brands will do different things to express that. And I think this is a world phenomenon as well. So it will be another form of identity expression, and there will be entrepreneurs who will come up with ways to do the same thing that a mask does, but in more creative ways.

As told to Amy Bradney-George.

Want more help with masks? Check out our overview of face masks, how to choose the best one, what doctors recommend when using them, the rules that apply in Australia

Dr Paul Harrison is the deputy director and marketing lead in the Deakin Business School MBA program, director of The Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing, and a senior lecturer at Deakin University. He researches, consults and advises government, industry and NGOs predominantly in the field of consumer behaviour and marketing.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article (which may be subject to change without notice) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Finder and its employees. The information contained in this article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort. Neither the author nor Finder has taken into account your personal circumstances. You should seek professional advice before making any further decisions based on this information.

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Images: Getty Images, supplied (Paul Harrison)

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