Unmasking Rational Humanity

Many years ago, just after I moved to higher education, I was having a casual conversation with a colleague in the economics department. He joked that he was socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and that he leaned Democrat because it was easier to teach liberals economics than to make Republicans give a shit about humans.

He also made an off-hand comment about people using Consumer Report when making purchases, or similar rational approaches to being consumers. I paused and stated directly to him that virtually no one shops rationally. I recall that he looked at me as if I were from Mars.

I was reminded of this exchange—and my constant frustration at economics as a field is too often grounded in rational consumer assumptions—when a former student posted on social media about economist Daniel Kahneman, notable for contesting that assumption about rational consumers.

But I have also been thinking about assuming humans are rational in the context of calls for everyone wearing face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A good friend on social media posted this recently:


And my first thought was that it is missing the next level—two faces in masks worn below their noses while touching or adjusting the masks every few seconds.

The research on and calls for everyone wearing face masks are making the rational-assumption mistake too often found in economic theory and models, I think; for example:

A shopper during the pandemic in California (The San Diego Union-Tribune).
Ron DeSantis, wearing a mask, stands in front of National Guard members wearing masks
Gov. Ron DeSantis fumbles mask wearing (Slate).

Models for the effectiveness of face masks seem to assume not only rational wearers but also many other idealistic givens that are decontextualized from the very real (and inequitable) world.

Writing in The Guardian, Aaron Thomas offered some of that reality:

On Saturday I thought about the errands I need to run this week, including a trip to the grocery store. I thought I could use one of my old bandannas as a mask. But then my voice of self-protection reminded me that I, a black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandanna covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store. The situation isn’t safe and could lead to unintended attention, and ultimately a life-or-death situation. For me, the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting Covid-19.

Just as shaming people for not conforming to the stay-at-home orders fails to acknowledge the privilege in being able to stay home, shaming people for not wearing masks fails to recognize the potential flaws in wearing masks and unintended consequences, such as the fears expressed by Thomas above.

In ideal contexts, which never exist, the image above of the advantages of mask wearing is powerful and even compelling.

But when I have visited grocery stores or gone on walks, I see a wide assortment of people with and without masks. Those with masks have on, often, home-made or makeshift masks that are likely not providing any protection, and many wear them pulled below their noses or with the sides billowed out.

Many people seek masks that barely obstruct breathing, which is a sign that the mask is ineffective for the very thing it is being worn to do.

And mask wearers are in a constant state of touching and adjusting those masks—touching their faces, groceries, touch screens.

One of the most troubling negative consequences of the move toward all people wearing masks is that wearers take on a false sense of greater safety, and as a result, fail to respect the 6′ social distancing guidelines, decreasing everyone’s safety especially considering the shoddy masks and wearing of those masks.

Credible evidence suggests that basic cloth masks worn properly can reduce spreading a virus if worn by people who are sick (asymptomatic or symptomatic), but high quality masks properly worn is an incredibly high bar needed for masks to protect healthy people from contracting the virus.

The U.S. and the world are now living a huge and deadly experiment, one that is based in the real world, not a computer simulation, where the vast majority of human beings are simply not rational.

Promoting public policy based on the assumption of rational humans is dangerous folly, one of the many ways we have failed in our economic policy in the U.S., but shifting to a recognition that humans are mostly irrational is not a call for fatalism.

Seeking ways to inform people with credible information is a nudge toward rational behavior, if we see that as evidence-based decision making (instead of the “rational” of faux-objective paternalism), and a way grounded in hope.

But on that long and slow journey, we must find ways to exist that acknowledge the irrational human, the person with the mask pulled below their nose standing directly behind you in the check-out line who taps you on the shoulder and points to the shopper in a KKK hood.


Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus