Masks and Mutual Adjustment

"speaking of smith"

Steven Horwitz for AdamSmithWorks

July 13, 2020

As someone in several COVID-19 high risk categories, I am a strong proponent of mask wearing in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces. Those of us who are more vulnerable really do benefit when others wear masks. 

Mask wearing, however, does come with certain costs. One set of costs is related to the process of mutual social adjustment that is at the heart of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Both TMS and The Wealth of Nations rely on processes of mutual adjustment, made possible by particular social institutions or practices, to produce social order, whether in the form of moral and civilized behavior or economic coordination and growth.

In markets, we have a well-developed theory about how prices serve as nodes of coordination that allow us to mutually adjust our behavior and produce economic order. Before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Smith identified a similar process of mutual adjustment in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. At the core of Smith’s moral theory is the idea of sympathy, or our capacity to recognize in others the ways in which we might feel or react in various situations. We desire, Smith argues, to produce and experience the “fellow-feeling” that comes from harmonious agreement with other people. Over time we come to act with “propriety” by learning what sorts of behaviors and choices produce that fellow-feeling and thereby ease the process of social interaction. We are guided in this process by our “impartial spectator,” or the “man in the breast” who is that part of us that tries to step outside our specific situation or prejudices and judge the propriety of our behavior. The spectator asks us to consider how others would view our behavior. Behaving with propriety, and therefore acting morally, means moderating one’s behavior based on the reactions of others so that one contributes to harmonious human interaction. 

But how does this adjustment process take place? Smith argues, in modern parlance, that we learn to read the room. When we say or do things we observe how others receive our behavior, and we use those cues to learn whether we have acted with propriety. Smith uses the example of telling a joke or funny story to a room full of friends. We thoroughly enjoy the fellow-feeling that comes when others react with amusement. The genuine laughter of friends indicates the production of social harmony. When a funny story falls flat, we feel a kind of shame and embarrassment that is at odds with such harmony. By watching the reactions of others, we experience a kind of inter-personal profit and loss that causes us to learn what sorts of actions are proper and which are not.

So what does all of this have to do with masks? In reasonably intimate social situations, we rely on the facial expressions of those around us as important cues for mutual adjustment. Humans have become very good at reading the reactions of others. Most of us know that certain looks and expressions communicate particular social cues that might require us to rethink our behavior. Those facial expressions are part of the “price system” and the inter-personal profit and loss processes that produce the mutual adjustment of the moral process Smith describes.

Masks hamper this process. At one level, they make it harder to hear and understand the spoken words or tone of others, and these can also be important parts of mutual social adjustment. But less obviously, they reduce our ability to communicate through facial expressions. In a room full of relative strangers, the ability to read the room by watching facial expressions is particularly important. With friends, we might have enough experience to read other cues about their reaction to our behavior. But with strangers, we have to rely on basic facial expressions that are reasonably universal across humans.

Masks make all of this more difficult. They are the social equivalent of price controls in the way that they prevent us from exchanging the signals necessary for effective social coordination. Perhaps we should not be surprised that social interactions seem less harmonious in recent months. It’s hard to see others smile. It’s hard to hear what they’ve said to us. It’s even harder to understand how hard it is for them to understand what we’ve said. These are serious impediments to the processes of mutual social adjustment that enable us to learn to act with propriety and create the fellow-feeling that Smith describes. The result is a kind of social stiffness and distancing that parallels the physical distancing that we’ve all been engaging in. 

Our interactions feel less natural and more forced, and we have to think about our actions in a more explicit way when we lack the full range of social cues that facial expressions and clear vocal communication produce. Masks make it harder for us to moderate our behavior by cutting off part of the feedback process that helps us learn when we have behaved inappropriately. This might help explain what seems to be an increasing coarseness of social interaction in the last few months, as well as explaining why some find masks to be so frustrating. Those are legitimate concerns as we consider the roles that masks play in our response to COVID-19.

So what are the implications? As I said at the outset, I think the benefits of mask wearing outweigh the costs. As mask wearing continues, we will learn to adjust. We will look for other cues to how others are reacting to us. We will learn to speak more loudly or clearly. I hope that we will learn to be more patient with the little moments of misunderstanding or embarrassment that will continue to arise more frequently than in the past. We’ll learn to live with social interaction that is less smooth and produces less true fellow-feeling that we might have otherwise. All of this is an unfortunate cost of life in a pandemic. I hope that it provides even more reasons to continue to understand the virus, improve treatments for those stricken with it, and to eventually come up with a vaccine or a cure. 

Editor's Note: You can read more from Horwitz at AdamSmithWorks.