We take cues about how to behave from other people, especially in times of great uncertainty like the current Covid-19 pandemic. Home-bound, many currently turn to the media to learn about the actions of fellow citizens and political leaders. Imagine you are watching the evening news and you see coverage of people defying social distancing guidelines, partying on the beach or congregating in bars. Would you give up on flattening the curve of Covid-19 infection or would you increase your efforts to make up for the failings of others? What if, instead, you saw reports of thousands of people volunteering as health workers in their communities? Would you be inspired and join in or sit back knowing that others are filling the void?
In recent work, Willa Brown and I provide some answers to these questions, based on an experiment with people recruited online in the US. We randomly assigned participants to watch a video showing either private citizens or politicians behaving in ways that have either a negative or a positive effect on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. We measured effects on two forms of pro-social behavior: how much money people donated to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Emergency Fund, and whether they spent time learning about local volunteering opportunities related to Covid-19.
Participants who watched positive citizen role models donated 34% more money and expressed more interest in volunteering than those watching people disobey social distancing guidelines. However, the results look very different for public role models. Participants who watched elected officials acting pro-socially (leading the public health response) donated 29% less and were 53% less likely to take steps to learn about volunteering opportunities compared to people who watched politicians mismanaging the crisis. The results for donations are shown in the figure; those for volunteering look quite similar.
Our findings suggest that people treat the actions of government officials as substitutes, and those of fellow citizens as complements, to their own actions. We go along with what the rest of the “herd” does, but we act so as to offset what our “leaders” do.
These results can be reconciled by the view that pro-social behavior depends on both the adoption of pro-social norms and a sense of responsibility among individuals for taking actions that satisfy those norms. Trust is one of the key norms among groups that succeed in acting pro-socially. The majority of people are “strategic cooperators”: they are willing to contribute to a public good if they believe that others will do the same. Our work shows that trust is influenced by the actions of private role models: people who watched positive examples were 21% more likely to agree with the statement “Most people can be trusted” than those who watched the negative examples of private role models.
By contrast, public role models do not affect trust norms. They do, however, influence whether people feel responsible to contribute to a collective activity. Watching a video of failing political leaders led to a 70% increase in the share of participants who reported that personal responsibility to take action was an important factor in their decision about how much to donate. This increase in responsibility and pro-social behavior when exposed to negative public role models is particularly strong among women.
Overall, positive private role models are effective because they increase norms of trust. Negative public role models increase pro-social behavior because they increase people’s feelings of a responsibility to “step up” and take action. Put differently, people may compensate for the failures of a country’s government to take positive action by doing so themselves.
© Martin Abel
Martin Abel is assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College, USA, and a Research Affiliate at IZA, Germany
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