Wearing Masks and Asserting Meaning: Insights from the Neurocognitive Science of Cool

By Will McCreadie and  James Giordano, PhD

Beginning this week, the nation as a whole will attempt relaxation of social restriction, re-engagement of public activities, and re-opening of certain businesses and venues. Four months ago, people wearing masks stood out. Now it’s those who don’t that often catch a sideways glance. Yet, despite the ongoing risk of infection amidst calls and efforts for relaxing social restrictions, some people are rebelling against wearing protective gear. Just this past weekend, when one maskless family was asked on the street about their lack of PPE, they responded, almost in unison “masks aren’t cool”. At the same time, A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez have been “corona-shamed” and labeled arrogant for not wearing masks. Why the discrepancy?

Research in neurocognitive science suggests that sentiments of “cool” are actually a complex combination of feelings of fear and aspiration. It combines the desire to be differentiated with the need to feel accepted. Studies indicate that deciding something is cool draws on two functional systems of the brain: the default mode network (DMN), and the salience network (SN). The DMN is linked to introspection and the determination of value – the rewards associated with being “cool”, while the SN plays a role in fear (often seeking to balance fears of both the behavior in question, and of being ostracized).

Such patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior are the focus of somewhat new disciplines of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing. The use of masks provides a perfect natural experiment to gauge how “cool” works, because they haven’t been common in our society since the 1918 flu pandemic, and have been now thrust into the social-spotlight.

When deciding if something is “cool,” our brains calculate the relative benefits and costs of that choice. We rarely need to ponder this judgement; we just “feel it”. The human brain takes less than 300 milliseconds to form an opinion, assessing events and consequences in our past, with the current situation, and making predictions about the near-term and future consequences of our decisions and actions. This is the phenomenon of automatic valuation.

Deciding whether something is cool, and worth the “investment” in terms of benefit, burden, and risk, comes down to figuring out what maximizes its – and your – utility. Our brains go through a rapid series of inquiry: Will this choice help me or hurt me? In the near term, or in the future? Is it the best of my available options? People aren’t perfectly rational, so we tend to base decisions and actions upon our beliefs and experience of what’s most useful.

In the case of masks, the obvious tradeoff is freedom versus safety; but considering “cool” in the equation demonstrates that other forces are also at work. What we find “cool” and feel good about depends on the image of ourselves we want to convey. We are strongly social creatures, who are sensitive to the ways we’re regarded. Whether or not you wear a mask conveys a signal (even if you don’t realize it). Social signaling plays a significant role in what we wear, and do.

This partly explains the divide in public stances on PPE. In neuroeconomic terms, masks are an identity good. People who wear masks (or dress up their Twitter profiles with mask pics) may hope to signal their virtue and intelligence, by highlighting the relative sacrifice of their comfort, both for the good of others (and for their own good – both to prevent infection, and to be perceived as socially responsible). People making unusual homemade masks may seek to highlight their resourcefulness and creativity. Those without masks are signaling something else: confidence, rebelliousness, bravery, or foolishness and selfishness — depending on your perspective.

There is also a status system in mask culture. Any recollection of middle school will surely bring to mind the in-group/out-group dynamic that plays a substantive part in determining what we find cool: with people on the “outside” aspiring to copy and outdo people on the “inside” to gain acceptance. Primate studies show this hierarchical behavior to be a side-effect of evolution. Status, and belonging to an in-group were valuable for our ancestors because the chances of survival were higher for a group member than an outcast. This primal need to conform may be a one of the factors in seeking to be “cool”. At the same time, no one wants to feel like a faceless member of the herd. To be cool, we strive for acceptance without homogeneity, and differentiation without alienation from the group.

Almost overnight COVID-19 has created a new in-group: people wearing masks. Like any major trend, there are subgroups within the mask-wearing set. The professional grade mask signals that you either are a “front-line” worker, that you have enough money to afford a scarce item, or that you’ve got good connections. People in different age groups also try to gain status by signaling different things. Teens, for example, may want branded masks (searches for designer masks increased 100-fold from mid-February to mid-April). Part of the reason why a teen covets a Supreme face mask ($450 online if you can get it), while their parents would never wear one, is that their peer groups value different things. Teens tend to want to be edgy and unique.

A significant element of cool in the age of COVID-19 is competitive – and reciprocal – altruism, which is another form of social signaling. Whether it’s the CEO of Flexport sending 3 million masks to Amsterdam, or the CEO of Twitter giving away almost a billion dollars and tracking it in a Google spreadsheet, people and companies are vying to be the most creative and effective responders to the virus. If selflessness wasn’t a valuable social signal, people would make these donations anonymously. Our research has shown that every altruistic act has an egoistic component. It’s “cool to be kind”, and as a result such acts of altruism make the actor feel good.

For many people, masks are an entirely new form of self-expression whose usefulness goes beyond their protective benefit. Simply put, as we strive to re-start our socio-economic engines for the benefit of both individuals and the population at large, masks are a currency of capability and cool. So, whether it’s making a statement of individualism, asserting acts of altruism, or evidencing a stance of responsibility, masks are a medium to represent ourselves in a commitment to each other.

Will McCreadie studies computer science and economics at Georgetown University, where he is a Baker Scholar and a Carroll Fellow.  His research in neuroeconomics examines the neurological underpinnings of decision-making.  Will’s current work explores the biological causes and economic implications of the human desire to be accepted.  He is on Twitter @McCreadieWill

James Giordano PhD is Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry, Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program, and Senior Scholar-in-Residence of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center.