New mask rules trust Americans will be honest about vaccine status. Experts say they’ll lie.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement Thursday that fully vaccinated people largely no longer need to wear a mask has left many Americans wondering: If there are no enforcement measures, won’t people just lie about their vaccination status?
Public health officials have admitted that the honor system will play a large role in the new rules.
“I mean, you’re going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not and responsible enough to be wearing … a mask,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, told CNN Thursday.
There’s long been talk of a “vaccine passport” model of enforcement in the U.S., where vaccination status grants or limits a person’s ability to travel or enter certain spaces. But such a program is mostly a theory currently, and multiple businesses have announced that they won’t be asking customers to prove their vaccine status if they shop unmasked.
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And while businesses and politicians say they trust Americans to be honest, experts on human behavior aren’t so sure.
Michael McCullough, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, said the new guidance will enable unvaccinated people to flout rules with “impunity.”
“Many will lie. Many are lying, have been lying,” he said. “In some ways, this is a really perfect recipe for lots of people to be dishonest about whether they got vaccinated. They can say, well, everyone who really is worried about it has gone out and done it, and my personal risk is low.”
People lie all the time
In general, most people lie about once a day, and about 25% of people lie about “consequential things,” according to Michael Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Louisville who has done 35 years of research on lying, cheating and stealing.
Researchers have long studied lying through a variety of approaches – self-reported surveys, fact checking school and job applications, recruiting participants for recorded interviews and analyzing diary entries.
Many of our daily lies relate to the “expectation maintenance theory of lying,” Cunningham said – that you try to maintain cordial social relations by telling people what they want to hear.
“Most of the time, we don’t lie for malicious reasons,” said Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies honesty and deception. “I don’t like to get you into trouble. We lie sometimes for pro-social reasons. I want to spare your feelings.”
Mask rules invite deception
The greater the incentive and the lower the risk, the more likely we are to lie, researchers said.
That’s a major problem in the context of differing rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, Lee said. It’s “very, very likely people are going to lie … because there’s no verification system and no punishment.”
“This is not going to work. When people show up at the grocery store, if you ask them, have you gotten the vaccination, they’ll be more likely to say yes,” Lee said.
And if the first few days are any indication, many businesses don’t even plan on asking customers their status, giving customers even less of a moral dilemma.
“There is this universal or global phenomenon that people have a strong desire to see themselves as honest,” said Alain Cohn, a behavioral economist at the University of Michigan who has studied whether people are likely to return lost wallets. “The big problem is how to activate and make sure people cannot rationalize a bad behavior. … They can always find a good reason why it’s OK to lie or tell a half-truth.”
That’s the problem with the COVID-19 vaccination honor code, Cohn said.
“I’m just worried that these people will find some self-serving justifications for not getting vaccinated without feeling bad about it,” he said.
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Recent surveys indicate more than a quarter of all Americans say they don’t want a COVID-19 vaccine. Imagine if about a quarter of that subgroup lies about their status in order to go maskless, Cunningham said.
“People will absolutely be deceptive,” Cunningham said. “Its going to be a relatively small fraction of the population, but it’s going to be a meaningful fraction of the population.”
Right now, only about 36% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. People who are unvaccinated are still at a high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, especially when spending time inside without a mask.
Do honor systems ever work?
In low-stakes situations, honor systems can work well, researchers said. Unmanned farm stands, for example, where patrons take crops and leave behind payment, have proven successful across the country.
“It does capitalize on the fact that the majority of people are honest and even altruistic,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at NYU School of Medicine. “And some people will be flattered that you trust them enough and will overcompensate, and that will make up for those that have been dishonest. But you don’t use the honor system for selling houses.”
In higher-stakes settings, such as test-taking, some institutions have seen a slew of honor code violations in recent years, particularly amid the pandemic, when millions of students are taking tests from home.
Just last month, West Point officials expelled eight cadets and required more than 50 others to repeat a year of instruction after the most extensive cheating scandal in more than 40 years at the Army’s renowned academy with a reputation for moral rectitude. And last week, Dartmouth College accused 17 medical students of cheating on remote tests.
Lee said he recently published a study finding that, for exams in pre-pandemic times that were not proctored and were based on honor codes, cheating rates were as high as 80%.
“If you entrust someone to trust their morality in something that has such high stakes as an exam, they are more likely to ignore their moral code and get ahead,” Lee said.
Caplan said he’s nervous people will feel justified in lying because the vaccine issue has become so politicized in the U.S.
“It isn’t just an honor system. Many people don’t want the vaccine on ideological grounds,” Caplan said. “It’s not the same as saying we’re going to rely on you to pay at checkout.”
“My intuition is, given the situation, a lot of people feel they are justified not to take vaccinations,” he said. “Therefore, they are going to feel more justified to lie to you as well.”