Wittenberg and Hammitt on Mask Wearing with CNN

Headshot of James Hammitt on Left and Eve Wittenberg on Right

CHDS faculty Eve Wittenberg and James Hammitt discussed how we perceive risks of mask wearing with Sanjay Gupta of CNN as COVID restrictions are relaxed across the US. Wittenberg stressed the importance of understanding the heuristics that we all use when assessing risk: “In order to get through everyday life, basically we have to simplify things… we see something, we recognize it, we kind of subconsciously make a decision about it, because we just don’t have the time and usually don’t have the information to assess everything in minute detail.” These heuristics are used when we lack full information, as is the case in the rapidly changing mask landscape, and can lead to emotion-based decisions.

Gupta likened the situation to a game of poker, where some things are known and others not, and more information is constantly being revealed. We make the best possible decisions we can with the pressure of time, the lack of full information, and the emotion-based heuristics that operate to keep us from being completely overwhelmed. Hammitt brought in the additional layer of risk posture, or how tolerant people are of taking risks, and personal values, both of which are critical to decisions involving risk: “Knowing that the risk [of a particular activity] is X doesn’t tell you what to do… the question is: is that worth it? And that’s more a matter of preference: what do you gain by exposing yourself to the higher risk?…There’s no objectively right answer to that.” Hammitt placed responsibility on “experts” to provide accurate information, which individuals can then assess for trustworthiness and relevance to their own personal values, from which then a decision can be made.

Wearing a mask is a decision rife with psychological complexity, involving risk perception, assessment, and values. Decision science provides a framework to understand the processes underlying such decisions and help individuals and policy makers achieve optimal outcomes.

Learn more: Read CNN interview
Learn more: HSPH Executive and Continuing Education course: Environmental Health Risk: Analysis and Applications

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