Mask-Wearing and Moral Values

Tiffany Tieu, C’22, worked on a psychological study that increased mask-wearing on campus.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

By Lauren Rebecca Thacker

Tiffany Tieu, C’22

Tiffany Tieu’s research tackles topics that matter deeply to students. And she’s not just gathering information—she’s designing interventions that make a difference.

Tieu, C’22, started by studying mask non-compliance on Penn’s campus. In Fall 2020, she enrolled in Psych 362, Research Experience in Clinical Psychology. She was worried about the rise in COVID cases and had observed that in terms of students and mask-wearing, there was room for improvement.

She and her research partners, Julie Baum, C’21, and Danny Chiarodit, C’21, decided that their research project should focus on mask-wearing. Their instructor, Melissa Hunt, Associate Director of Clinical Training, had mentioned that there was some existing research on the relationship between mask-wearing and moral values, but at that point—around six months into COVID’s effects on the United States—research was early and limited. Tieu, Baum, and Chiarodit realized they could add to the growing body of knowledge and decided to focus their study on Penn undergraduates.

“We said, ‘Why don't we see if moral values are correlated with mask non-compliance,’” she remembers. “We had a vague idea to develop an intervention in the future, but we weren't entirely sure if we were going to do that. It's hard to develop an intervention and actually change behaviors. At first, we just wanted to gather information.”

A unique aspect of their study was the focus on moral values associated with mask-wearing as recommended by public health guidance. Existing studies focused on moral values and intentions about mask compliance, but did not collect longitudinal data on actual behaviors.

The first step of their study, conducted in fall 2020, was a survey of 100 students, who could be in Philadelphia or anywhere in the world. The survey asked about: political orientation, core moral values, fear of COVID-19, health anxiety, health locus of control, self-efficacy, and mask-wearing behavior. Their findings confirmed the general conception that students who identified as Republican or conservative were less likely than other students to wear masks. A key finding was that the moral value of respect for authority negatively correlated with mask-wearing—that is, students who highly value authority are less likely to wear a mask. Students who reported that they highly value ideas like fairness and harm reduction were more likely to wear a mask.

These findings led Tieu, Baum, and Chiarodit to design a follow-up study, conducted in spring 2021. This time the study focused only on students living on or near campus, and it included a public health intervention.  

The spring study included many of the same questions as the fall, but added one of two PSAs about mask-wearing. The first PSA, which the group considered the control, was a video featuring traditional authority figures: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President; Benoit Dubé, Penn's Chief Wellness Officer; and CDC officials. The second video focused on campus authority leaders whom Tieu and her teammates thought conservative-leaning students were likely to value: presidents of the Penn College Republicans, the Undergraduate Assembly, and a fraternity and sorority; and Adam Grant, Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at Wharton and Professor of Psychology.

“After students filled out the surveys and watched the PSA, we sent them an email with a daily survey for seven days, kind of like PennOpen Pass,” Tieu explains. “We asked things like, ‘Did you wear a mask today?,’ ‘How many people were you around?,’ and  ‘Did you social distance when around others?’”

Study findings showed that liberal-leaning students rated the video featuring Dr. Fauci more authoritative than the video featuring campus leaders, while conservative-leaning students rated them equally authoritative. After viewing the PSA, conservative-leaning students increased mask-wearing behaviors, regardless of which video they watched. Liberal-leaning students did not significantly change mask-wearing behaviors after viewing the videos, which, due to their previous high mask compliance rates, did not surprise Tieu and her teammates.

Tieu reports, “Our main finding was that targeting moral values associated with non-compliance is an effective strategy for increasing mask-wearing. We also gathered daily reports of actual mask-wearing over time, not just intentions of mask-wearing. The results can be used to promote health and well-being on campus and ensure that the Penn community stays safe.”

Now, with teammate Hope Cho, C’22, Tieu is conducting her senior honors thesis and researching the anti-Asian hate and violence and its impact on Penn students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We're currently recruiting East Asian and Southeast Asian participants, and gathering information on their well-being and experiences of anti-Asian hate. It’s a correlational study for now, but in the spring semester, we might try to develop an intervention to help students feel safer during this time.”

Thinking about her time at Penn, Tieu says, “I’ve always been interested in learning about mental illness and treatment for mental disorders, along with human behavior and how we interact with one another. So, when I got to Penn and saw how strong our psychology program was, it was time to declare my major officially.” In the future, Tieu hopes to become a psychologist and attend graduate school for clinical or counseling psychology.

She also reflects on how COVID has impacted her experiences as a student—one of the reasons she pursued the mask compliance research. “My only normal year at Penn was my freshman year,” she says. “So, it’s definitely a strange feeling to be back now as a senior. It’s been amazing to see my friends in person, and I’m trying to make the most of every moment before I graduate.”