Still, trying to shame people into healthier behavior generally doesn’t work—and actually can make things worse.
Public-health professionals have learned this lesson before. In 1987, Congress banned the use of federal funds for HIV-prevention campaigns that might “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” As a result, public-health campaigns avoided sex-positive imagery and messaging, and instead associated condom use with virtue and condomless sex with irresponsibility, disease, and death. According to one particularly foreboding poster, which featured an image of a gravestone: “A bad reputation isn’t all you can get from sleeping around.” But those moralistic, fear-mongering health messages often fell flat. Other HIV-prevention campaigns began to adopt a harm-reduction approach, which empathizes with people’s basic human needs and offers them strategies to limit potential dangers. For some men, condoms got in the way of what they valued most about sex: pleasure and intimacy. Not surprisingly, HIV-prevention campaigns that put pleasure and intimacy at the center of their safer-sex messaging tended to work.
Summoning compassion for people who have a hard time wearing masks, or even the people who flat-out object to them, isn’t such a tall order. Many Americans genuinely want to keep their community safe, and recognize that masks reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. But just like the well-intended condom on the nightstand that never makes it out of its wrapper, some masks don’t make it onto someone’s face—often for relatable reasons.