Musings on the Costs and Benefits of Masks

Discussions about masks are all practically impossible to avoid these days. Although, perhaps, “discussion” is too generous a term for the level of conversation that seems to take place most often. Instead, in my experience, it has a tendency to devolve into a snarky exchange of quips amounting to little more than “you don’t value freedom” and “you don’t care if people die.”


That approach misses so many points. From an economist’s perspective, people make their decisions based upon costs and benefits associated with an activity as they perceive them. Such a decision making calculus truly encompasses all manner of decisions — as big as the question whether or not to buy a house and as small as the decision whether or not to wear a mask.


Remember, each person deciding whether or not to wear a mask has different constraints, concerns, objectives, and perspectives influencing the decision they ultimately make. They are also each going to be influenced differently by the social considerations that go along with mask wearing.


With that in mind, I’d like to outline a more detailed list of those costs and benefits one might weigh in their decision both at individual and social levels of consideration — along with a little humor sprinkled in along the way.


Individual Costs of Mask Wearing:

  • The monetary cost of the mask itself
  • Discomfort and generally sweaty face from wearing the mask in this summer heat
  • “Mental burden” of remembering to have a mask on hand wherever you go
  • People might think its okay to get back within your personal space bubble
  • Realization that your oral hygiene could use a little more effort, because there’s no escape from how stinky your breath is


Individual Benefits of Mask Wearing:

  • Protects from airborne contraction and transmission of the disease
  • No issues/questions regarding whether or not you’ll be allowed into a location
  • Utilizing the mask for fashion or other forms of outward expression
  • If you have a serious case of RBF, it’s hidden now
  • Less need to wear makeup, especially lipstick, if most of your face is covered


Social Costs of Mask Wearing:

  • Losing part of the human connection associated with not being able to see most of people’s faces when they’re behind masks


Social Benefits of Mask Wearing:

  • Slow the transmission of the virus, making it safer for the more vulnerable of our fellow citizens
  • Allows more economic activity to resume as close to normal as possible


Individual Costs of Not Wearing a Mask:

  • Might not be allowed into a venue
  • More likely to contract or transmit the virus
  • You’re more likely to have to put forth the effort of doing your makeup
  • Depending on jurisdiction, you might face actual fines or punishments for not wearing the mask


Individual Benefits of Not Wearing a Mask:

  • Save money on mask purchases
  • Can breathe more freely and your face isn’t so sweaty
  • Less discomfort
  • No worry about remembering a mask
  • People might be more likely to stay 6+ feet away from you, especially if your breath is stinky


Social Costs of Not Wearing a Mask:

  • More likely viral spread, especially if asymptomatic
  • Ostracism from some of your social groups
  • Threat of “Lockdown 2.0”


Social Benefits of Not Wearing a Mask:

  • Can more easily connect with your fellow humans through non-verbal facial expressions



This, of course, is far from being a comprehensive list. Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to take an extra moment to think about these, and many other, costs and benefits associated with wearing a mask. As you continue through the crazy journey that is 2020, I hope you’ll keep this illustration in mind.


…and if you see me out with a mask on, it’s because I’m too lazy to do my makeup, and I should tone down my RBF.


Jessi Troyan, Ph.D. is the Development Director for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.