Persuasive Messages, Social Norms, and Reactance: A Study of Masking Behavior during a COVID-19 Campus Health Campaign

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Efforts by universities to reduce the spread of COVID-19 include health campaigns intended to encourage students to wear masks. While well-intended, these efforts may produce counter-persuasion (e.g., decrease masking) if they are seen as threatening individuals’ freedom to choose. In a rolling cross-sectional study of one university campaign (n = 681), we found that the presence of the campaign did instigate a form of resistance known as reactance and that reactance was negatively associated with masking behavior. Masking was also diminished by the frequency with which respondents observed others not wearing a mask (anti-masking descriptive norm) and the frequency with which respondents observed others expressing disdain for masking (anti-masking injunctive norm). Most of these findings were magnified among students who identified as politically conservative. There was no evidence that the frequency of seeing others speak in favor of masks (pro-masking injunctive norm) produced an increase in masking. The results provide valuable theoretical insights into the causes of reactance and empirical evidence of the risks associated with student-oriented COVID safety campaigns.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalHealth Communication
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Communication

Cite this