Mask-wearing and moral values

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.

Tiffany Tieu.
School of Arts & Sciences undergraduate Tiffany Tieu. (Image: OMNIA)

Tieu, a senior in the School of Arts & Sciences, started by studying mask noncompliance 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 and Danny Chiarodit, 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 noncompliance,’” 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.

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.

Study findings showed that liberal-leaning students rated the video featuring 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.

Read more at OMNIA.