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.”