The Meaning of Masks
Forthcoming, Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy
7 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2020 Last revised: 13 Apr 2020
Date Written: April 8, 2020
Many incentives are monetary, and when private or public institutions seek to change behavior, it is natural to change monetary incentives. But many other incentives are a product of social meanings, about which people may not much deliberate, but which can operate as subsidies or as taxes. In some times and places, for example the social meaning of smoking has been positive, increasing the incentive to smoke; in other times and places, it has been negative, and thus served to reduce smoking. With respect to safety and health, social meanings change radically over time, and they can be dramatically different in one place from what they are in another. Often people live in accordance with meanings that they deplore, or at least wish were otherwise. But it is exceptionally difficult for individuals to alter meanings on their own. Alteration of meanings can come from law, which may, through a mandate, transform the meaning of action into a bland, “I comply with law,” or into a less bland, “I am a good citizen.” Alteration of social meanings can also come from large-scale private action, engineered or promoted by “meaning entrepreneurs,” who can turn the meaning of action from, “I am an oddball,” to, “I do my civic duty,” or, “I protect others from harm.” Sometimes subgroups rebel against new or altered meanings, produced by law or meaning entrepreneurs, but often those meanings stick and produce significant change.
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