How behavioural economics insights can aid COVID-19 compliance

29 April 2020
To avoid a second wave of the coronavirus, Australians must continue to comply with 'stay at home' and other health-related orders. Professor Robert Slonim and colleagues explain a way to help achieve this.

Now that Australia is flattening the COVID-19 curve, compliance with the government-dictated health measures like hand-washing and social distancing may get increasingly challenging to sustain. Yet, it remains the case that non-compliance is not only often illegal – it can be fatal. So why do some of us flout the rules?

Why we disobey

Nobel Laureate in economics, Gary Becker, offered a rational explanation to understand cheating, lying, stealing, non-compliance and other illegal dishonest behaviour: it’s a trade-off between costs and benefits. If the likelihood of getting caught and the ensuing penalties are low relative to the benefits, then we should expect people acting rationally to behave dishonestly.

However, extensive research suggests that people experience moral and psychological costs associated with behaving dishonestly that dramatically limits their dishonest behaviour compared to Becker’s ‘rationally dishonest’ person. Abeler and colleagues (2019) note that these constraints on dishonesty may derive from our own intrinsic moral compasses and how others view us. Despite these moral costs, dishonesty, as well as non-compliance remain an issue, suggesting some people find ways to override moral constraints on dishonesty and disobey the rules.

How do we live with our non-compliant selves?

When self-interest is on the line, we humans can be very crafty! Psychology and behavioural economics tell us we can rationalise away a wide range of moral costs, justifying our rule-breaking behaviour. Three common rationalisation methods include:

Attenuation: We attenuate or completely deny the perceived harm of our behaviour. For instance, we deny that our misbehaviour truly harms anyone (does just one more person out in the city really make a difference?) or that there is any victim at all (is anyone really hurt if I have not washed my hands for a full 20 seconds?).

Normalisation: We normalise our behaviour by convincing ourselves that many others do the same thing, and since others do the same thing, our behaviour is acceptable. We tell ourselves stories such as, "why shouldn’t I go to the beach when many others are?".

Self-serving exploitation: We exploit uncertainty regarding what is appropriate behaviour to our personal benefit. For instance, if it is not perfectly clear how many people are allowed in an in-house gathering, we are likely to imagine a much higher upper limit is acceptable than if a hard limit was established.

Lessons for improving compliance during COVID-19

Policies that inhibit the use of rationalisation methods such as attenuation, normalization and self-serving exploitation can be used to increase compliance with COVID-19 measures. For example:

Making people reflect on moral costs: Measures like requiring people to sign their names to indicate their provided information is accurate can remind them of their own identity and intrinsic moral codes. Shu et al (2012) found that when self-reporting earnings from a laboratory experiment, 64 percent of participants cheated by over-stating their actual performance. When a new set of participants were asked to sign their name before reporting their earnings, only 37 percent cheated. Amid COVID-19, the Government’s measure to make all overseas arrivals to Australia sign an ‘Isolation Declaration Card’ which states ‘I [insert name] understand the need to self-isolate for 14 days’ acts in the same way as a mechanism for self-reflection.

Making the normatively appropriate behaviour known: Bott et al (2019) found that when Norwegian tax-residents received letters indicating their legal responsibility to report income on foreign assets, if the letter added a moral reason for doing so, their self-reported foreign income increased on average by 70 percent. Accompanying social-distancing rule changes with clear moral reasons for why the measures are in place, for example, reminding people of their responsibility to not put fellow citizens at risk, may similarly help increase compliance.

Making the victim salient: When judging ethicality, we deem unethical actions to be more unacceptable the more aware we are of the victim. Gino et al (2010) demonstrate that this effect can occur even by merely giving a hypothetical victim a name rather than referring to them as "a person". The increasingly frequent public reminders that health workers are at risk when treating coronavirus patients (such as social media campaigns featuring images of doctors and nurses) directly links our misbehaviour (not washing our hands, failing to keep social distance, etc.) to real victims in the same way.

Making sure rules are clearly defined: When estimating a value, Schweitzer and Hsee (2002) note individuals are more willing to exhibit dishonest behaviour the more wiggle room they are given. In grocery and hardware stores, clearly visible and illustrative signs draw people’s attention to unambiguous safety distance requirements. To avoid any scope of interpretation, sticky taping the floor at socially distanced intervals at the check-out unambiguously visualises this. 

Urging leaders to demonstrate compliance behaviour. Currently, daily images of leaders in government, education, business, etc. shaking hands, failing to wear masks (where this is advised) and infrequently standing more than 1.5m away from another person encourages non-compliance. Pushing leaders to be seen standing far apart, wearing masks and washing their hands will help normalise the desired behaviours.

This piece is authored by Professor Robert Slonim from the School of Economics, together with former University of Sydney Honours student Patrick Hendy and former Research Associate Dr Franziska Tausch.

Hero image credit: Filip Mroz on Unsplash.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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