Effort Justification and Mask Mandates: The Science Behind Virtue Signaling

America continues to march in lock step with the COVID-19 agenda as they have yet to throw off their masks and demand an end to the insidiousness of mask mandates and forced lockdowns. While there is a growing segment of the population who refuse to comply, most people, no doubt influenced by the constant fear messaging coming from the media, continue to go along. A recent study in Denmark proved that the forced wearing of masks made no statistical difference ̶ ̶ within the margin of error ̶̶ ̶ of whether people will become infected or not. The study explicitly lays out the evidence that wearing a mask does nothing to protect the wearer. Well, therein lies the point. This has never been the claim. The mask mandates are based on the existing evidence which suggests that a person infected with a flu like illness is less likely to spread infection in certain settings, when wearing a mask. In the beginning, the logic for mask mandates was built around a huge media blitz of propaganda suggesting that we all could be asymptomatic carriers. This is despite the CDC admitting in late August that there is no longer any need for asymptomatic people to get tested at all. This is because asymptomatic people rarely spread infection. Many Americans are blissfully unaware of this fact because the CDC, in all their honesty, only made the update on their website with no official announcement.

The wearing of masks then, has become a virtue signal of sorts. A sign of a moral superiority of the wearer that shows they care about you and are willing to sacrifice their own freedom, for your safety. It is a way of solidifying a vision you want others to have of yourself (McClay, 2018). It is more about wanting to appear as a good person, or a doer of good deeds, (McClay, 2018) opposed to doing them. Virtue signaling in this sense, is not a good thing if the signal overrides any sense of a real value (McClay, 2018). What you end up with in many cases is accusatory attitudes on both sides of the issue. On one side is the attitude being displayed by the signaler suggesting there is a moral superiority and, failing to fall in line demonstrates a lack of compassion. On the other side, is the accusation that someone is merely hiding behind an issue to make themselves look and or, feel good (McClay, 2018).

There is a science of behavior behind the concept of virtue signaling that this writer feels may be being taken advantage of by those pushing the COVID-19 narrative. In the book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner states that “those who work productively because of the reinforcing value of what they produce are under the sensitive and powerful control of the products” (Skinner, 1973, p. 91). What does this mean? It suggests that the personal effort is the reinforcing value put into the action, which is the product. In the case of mask mandates, the mask indicates a higher virtue of caring for society, and the effort that goes along with maintaining this higher virtue is the controlling element. In other words, the people behind the Covid-19 propaganda fully expected, based on this idea, that the lie of asymptomatic carriers would induce compliance among most people because most people do have a genuine care for others around them. But wait! There is more.

There is a theory called cognitive dissonance, put out by Leon Festinger in 1957, which seeks to answer how people deal with the psychological discomfort of behaviors that contradict beliefs. The feeling of discomfort is referred to as dissonance. The theory is based on the idea that in most cases, people need to feel that their beliefs and behaviors are consistent. When they are not, he theorized, they justify whatever actions they take to reduce that feeling of inconsistency. One such theory of dissonance reduction is called effort justification. This is exactly as it sounds. According to an article called Reducing Cognitive Dissonance Through Effort Justification: Evidence from Past Studies and Daily Experience, effort justification suggests that the amount of work put into the achievement of a goal may be enough to encourage a change in attitude or behavior towards that particular objective. This theory suggests that it is at least possible that those insisting on everyone wearing a mask are motivated by their own feelings of inconsistency. They too, were just as shocked that anyone would mandate such a thing but because they complied, they justified their compliance through the hard work of maintaining the idea that it is for the greater good. Now, as Skinner says, it is the controlling element of their behavior.

Evidence for effort justification to reduce dissonance was found in a study conducted by Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith in 1959 (Maich, 2013). This study revolved around the use of high or low dollar rewards for contributing to a college assignment. The findings showed that effort justification and opinion change occurred most in the group that took lower payments because they had to psychologically make up for the inconsistency between supporting the stated position in the assignment opposed to their own. Whereas the higher paid group justified it because they were paid well (Maich, 2013). It stands to reason however, that people will put a higher value into the work put into anything, whether they believe it or not. What is disconcerting about the whole thing is the fact that it is an understood aspect of human behavior that could easily be manipulated for nefarious purposes.

Whether any of these theories represent a true ̶ ̶ state of affairs ̶ ̶ concerning the wearing of masks and support of lockdowns, they are an interesting perspective. Social science takes a keen interest in human behavior and its relationship to the surrounding environment. In fact, B.F. was a pioneer in developing a science of human behavior that focused on this aspect alone, and not that we are in anyway, responsible for our own behavior.

“If we are to use the methods of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behavior is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some extent determine his actions. This possibility is offensive to many people. It is opposed to a tradition of long standing which regards man as a free agent, whose behavior is the product, not of specifiable antecedent conditions, but of spontaneous inner changes of course. Prevailing philosophies of human nature recognize an internal “will” which has the power of interfering with causal relationships and which makes the prediction and control of behavior impossible. To suggest that we abandon this view is to threaten many cherished beliefs—to undermine what appears to be a stimulating and productive conception of human nature.” (Skinner, Science of Human Behavior, 1953 pp. 6-7)





Festinger, L. A theory of cognitive dissonance.  (1957) Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press

Maich, G, H, K. (2013) Reducing Cognitive Dissonance Through Effort Justification: Evidence from Past Studies and Daily Experience. WUPJ (1)

Mcclay, B. D. (2018). Virtue Signaling. Hedgehog Review20(2), 141–143.

Skinner, B, F. Beyond freedom and dignity. (1971) Middlesex England: Penguin books ltd.

Skinner, B. F. Science and human behavior (1953) Pearson education

(Note: Where possible I linked to existing studies. If there is no link to an article it is because it was pulled from a university database and not a public source.)


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