Until everyone is vaccinated against COVID-19, public-health experts have urged people to wear masks and practice social distancing. But in the United States, many people have ignored those recommendations, and some businesses don’t enforce guidelines for fear of public backlash.

However, most Americans across the political spectrum prefer businesses that enforce mask wearing and would pay extra to be in such an environment, according to Chicago Booth’s Oleg Urminsky and Booth research professional Abigail Bergman. Their research suggests that consumers and business managers have tended to underestimate other people’s desire for stricter public-health measures.

People underestimated support for COVID-19 vaccinations

Study participants predicted that a majority would prefer getting a medical procedure done at a hospital that required rather than recommended COVID-19 vaccinations for its staff. But the actual number was higher than they thought.

Urminsky and Bergman, 2021

Urminsky and Bergman conducted a series of experiments involving thousands of participants. In one, 77 percent of participants expressed a preference for using a hospital that required employee vaccinations over one that only recommended them. As was the case in the other experiments, participants underestimated how many other people would have the same preference, a dichotomy that has implications for public health. The more the participants underestimated support for requiring vaccination, the less likely they were to say they would warn away a friend who was considering getting medical care at a hospital without a strict vaccination policy.

“When the majority of people prefer a policy, failure to recognize that the majority do in fact favor that policy can impede adoption of the policy as a norm, particularly when decision-making is decentralized and ad hoc,” the researchers write. These belief-based dynamics “may become increasingly important in the context of vaccination policies, as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.”

In another experiment, conducted in August 2020, the team asked participants on a national panel whether they would prefer to fly on an airline that required masks or one that merely recommended them. Ticket prices varied across 11 questions, ranging from $50 for Airline A and $100 for Airline B to $100 for Airline A and $50 for Airline B. Participants were also asked to guess how many of 100 other people would choose Airline A versus Airline B when both priced their tickets at $100. Some 70 percent selected the mask-requiring airline when both tickets were the same price. When the prices varied, participants chose the mask-requiring airline in 69 percent of the choice pairs, which the researchers calculate showed a willingness to pay $27 more for the airline with the stricter policy.

People also underestimated support for mask requirements

Study participants were 10 points off in their prediction of how many would prefer a ticket on an airline that required mask-wearing over an equally priced ticket on an another that only recommended masks.

Urminsky and Bergman, 2021

Participants were consistently wrong about others’ preferences. Of those who preferred the stricter policy, 53 percent underestimated others’ preference for the same thing, and 86 percent of those preferring the lax policy underestimated others’ preference for the stricter option.

A second set of experiments indicates similar trends across other types of businesses, including bakeries, pharmacies, movie theaters, hair salons, and gyms. The researchers added questions about customers’ perceptions of businesses with stricter policies and find that people rated these businesses as more caring, warmer, more competent, and more trusted.

A sample of managers also significantly underestimated consumers’ preference for the stricter policy across business types. This was true even though 88 percent of the managers personally said everyone should wear a face mask indoors and 63 percent “strongly supported” a national mask mandate. The discrepancy between how they felt and how they thought others felt suggests managers may not be executing their own views because they too often underestimate how many customers will agree with and even prefer stricter policies, according to the researchers.

Some of the experiments did produce results where political partisanship was evident, with Democrats expressing stronger preferences for stricter policies. However the degree of partisan preference in favor of strict policies varied by scenario, and the researchers conclude that the tendency to underestimate how many other people shared their views was overwhelmingly nonpartisan. For example, in the experiment that queried participants about whether they’d prefer a hospital with vaccinated employees, “political affiliation and demographics did not significantly predict choice of the vaccine-required hospital, predictions, prediction errors or likelihood of warning a friend,” the researchers write.

The consistency of the findings across conditions suggests that businesses may want to rethink—and beef up—their policies.

“Organizations put in the unfamiliar position of making their own public health policy decisions are likely to overestimate the risks to consumer perceptions and their bottom line of setting and enforcing strict policies and underestimate the higher risk they face from customer complaints about failing to have or enforce strict policies,” the researchers write.

As some states, such as Texas, end mask requirements without the full support of public-health experts, businesses will once again face the dilemma of whether to maintain their own strict mask policies. “Businesses face a risk that they will give in to a vocal minority who oppose masks,” Urminsky says, “and not notice that they are losing the trust and patronage of the majority of consumers who prefer shopping in an environment that enforces mask wearing.”

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