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Prospective Economic Costs Undermine Expectations of Social Distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an extraordinary burden on governments and citizens alike. In order to contain the spread of the pandemic and limit its effect on health care systems, citizens have been asked to forego social and economic activity to protect others at a tremendous cost to themselves. We argue that participation in social distancing can be seen as contributions to a public good, and thus willingness to participate will be influenced by the marginal costs and benefits of those contributions and expectations that other citizens will participate. We test our theory using three survey experiments conducted on nationally representative samples of citizens. We find that respondents have lower expectations of social distancing compliance by other citizens and by themselves in response to information related to the high prospective economic costs of social distancing. We show that the effect of prospective economic costs on self-expectations of social distancing compliance is strongest among younger respondents and those outside of dense-urban areas – two groups who face higher costs relative to benefits of social distancing. We also find evidence of a causal link between respondents’ expectations of social distancing compliance by other citizens and their self-expectations of compliance with these guidelines. This suggests that some of the effect of prospective economic cost on self-expectations may be mediated by changes in expectations of other citizens’ behaviour.
Read preprint here.