If it were necessary to choose one, only one, of the great controversies of the pandemic, the masks would be the key controversy. Not only because of the noise raised by the fact that the Government recommended not to use them, but because of the rapid change in criteria to make it compulsory. The debate was, is, and has been immense; but the most worrying thing is that many of the arguments did not have direct empirical support.
They were intuitions that were collected from other situations or fields of study, but that nobody knew if they could be applied to this case. The most important of all (due to the consequences that could result from it) is the idea that people who wear masks could end up compensating risks; that is, that, imbued with a sense of false security, they could end up having more risky behaviours than those who did not use them.
It was a reasonable hypothesis tending to what we knew of other prophylactic methods, but now we know that it was probably also false.
“Risk Compensation” in Real Life
At least, that follows from one of the first experiments that have been carried out on the subject, taking advantage of the situation of confinements, quarantines and compulsory measures that plague everyone. A team from the Humboldt University of Berlin decided to carry out a field experiment in the German capital to investigate if the masks caused a decrease in social distancing and to what extent this possible effect is a problem when the use of the masks becomes mandatory.
The researchers visited various stores in the city of Berlin before and after the introduction of the mandatory mask. To see the interaction dynamics, in half the cases the experimenters wore masks and in the other half, they did not. They took almost 500 measurements on social distance in the queues of the different establishments.
Masks seem to increase social distancing
Their conclusions, despite the logical methodological problems derived from the situation, are very interesting and allow them to conclude that they found no evidence that compulsory masking has a negative effect on maintaining social distance.
Furthermore, according to the study data, the masks significantly increase the distance and the effect does not change if the use is mandatory or not. On the other hand, they did detect that the relaxation of restrictions in stores did have a negative effect on social distancing. Something that undoubtedly has many implications when configuring de confusion procedures.
There is no doubt that this is only a partial study in a very specific socio-health situation. It would be interesting to analyze the effect in the long term and with more participants; Furthermore, it would be interesting to carry out longer studies to confirm that, in fact, risk compensation does not affect citizens in epidemics of this type. But we should not be misled, it is a key result in an environment where we were lacking them. A result that points out that the arguments against the masks are falling under their own weight.