Masks as a negotiating aid

Masks as a negotiating aid

Breathing masks protect against a corona infection – and apparently offer additional scope in business discussions.

With a breathing mask in front of the nose, mouth and chin, the view of the world changes. As a spectacle wearer, you first experience a clouding effect: the glasses fog up. The warm and humid exhaust air of the respiratory tract places a kind of vapor barrier between the self and the environment, and so the first steps with a mask in the supermarket turn into half a blind flight. At least, for example, tomatoes can be distinguished from eggplants in terms of their color, otherwise it can get more complicated. But even when the glasses are clear again, the view of the other masked people around you suffers: Did the man just smile when he cleared the way for you? Or did the mask hide a grim expression? Who knows what just happened behind this respirator.

So far, science has rightly focused on the question of whether wearing breathing masks can limit the spread of the coronavirus and reduce the risk of infection (the answer is yes). But how masks affect social interactions is still largely unclear. Research on this is just beginning, it wasn’t that long ago that breathing masks became an everyday sight.

Ramzi Fatfouta from the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and Yulia Oganian from the University of California in San Francisco have just published a study on the preprint server PsyArXiv that addresses this question. The result seems strange at first: According to the two scientists, people tend to accept an unfair offer if it is made by a person with a medical breathing mask – and that is also rational. That requires explanation.

Psychological distance promotes rational thinking

Fatfouta and Oganian let their almost 500 subjects play the so-called ultimatum game. This works according to the following simple rules: A player may divide an amount (for example ten euros) as he sees fit between himself and his teammate. The second person has to decide whether to accept the offer or not.

If she rejects it, both players go empty-handed. If they accept, both receive the corresponding amount. It would be rational to accept every offer – after all, for economic reasons it is more sensible to get little money instead of none at all. But that’s not how people tick: if they receive unfair offers, then most of them prefer to forego money, the main thing is that the egoist on the other side of the table doesn’t get anything.

Breathing masks apparently dampen this emotional response. Fatfouta and Oganian presented their subjects with photos of the person from whom the offers in the ultimatum game were supposed to come. If they wore a medical breathing mask in the picture, they would rather accept unfair offers than if their counterpart did not wear a mask. However, if it was a rather sporty cloth that was worn instead of a mask, this effect did not occur.

It could be deduced from this: If you are dealing with a person with a protective mask, you may react and act a little bit less emotionally. The two scientists speculate that this may be due to the fact that the breathing masks create “psychological distance” – and thus give rational thinking a little more space. Those who are less involved are more likely to keep a cool head. This was also shown once in an ultimatum game study in which the test subjects had to decide for others: Again, they accepted worse offers than they would ever accept for themselves.