Targeting Moral Values in Non-Compliant Individuals to Increase Mask-Wearing during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tiffany Tieu


COL 2022


Associate Director of Clinical Training

Project Summary

Despite public health officials’ recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic to wear facial coverings when around others, not all individuals choose to engage in this practice. In our study (Tiffany Tieu, Danny Chiarodit & Julie Baum), we wanted to determine why some people choose to not wear face masks when in public, as well as which individual factors are correlated with lower rates of mask-wearing.

To answer this question, we surveyed over 100 Penn undergraduates and asked them about their general mask-wearing habits. In addition, our team collected information on their political party and political orientation, core moral values, general health anxiety, health locus of control, general self-efficacy, and fear of COVID-19, hoping to discover a correlation between one or more of these values and compliance with mask-wearing. We found that people who are less likely to wear masks tend to be more politically conservative, have greater respect for authority, and have less fear of COVID-19 than those who are more compliant with mask-wearing.

With these results in mind, the three of us designed an intervention targeting the less compliant students on campus in an attempt to increase their mask-wearing habits. We created two PSA videos, one of which featured local and national public health authorities, and the other which included campus leaders at Penn. Both videos featured authority figures encouraging people to wear masks, and we wanted to see if the previously less compliant students would increase their mask-wearing after watching one or both of the videos.

Our team found that conservative participants, who were less compliant than liberal participants at baseline, increased their mask-wearing after watching each of the two videos, while liberals did not change their mask-wearing behavior. We concluded that the PSAs had a stronger impact on conservatives than liberals for two reasons. First, the liberal participants in our study were already wearing masks at a high rate, so there was little room for them to improve their mask-wearing habits. The second reason is that our PSAs appealed to the moral value of respect for authority, which is a value that has proven to be more important for conservatives than liberals.

Conducting this study was particularly rewarding because it allowed us to make a contribution toward keeping the Penn and West Philadelphia community safe during the pandemic. Through this project, we were able to gain experience designing an effective public health intervention, and we learned the skills necessary to administer such a study completely remotely. Our team used Qualtrics to create the online surveys, and we recruited and managed over 100 participants. Working with SPSS throughout the year, the three of us also became more skilled with data analysis and interpreting statistical results.

Having the ability to work on this project as a team of three was an exciting experience in what has otherwise been a more isolating year than most, and we hope that our findings can shed light on how public health interventions can be effectively designed to drive behavior change in the future. Thank you so much to Dr. Melissa Hunt for her mentorship and the College Alumni Society Undergraduate Research Grant for funding our study!

To see my poster, please visit Penn Presents: