In a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, researchers surveyed nearly 900 Italian residents to explore what happens when expectations are shattered about how long social distancing measures, like self-isolation, would last. Participants were less willing to do more self-isolating when told that social distancing time frames would run much longer or shorter than they anticipated.
“In a context where individual compliance has collective benefits, but full enforcement is costly and controversial, communication and persuasion have a fundamental role,” the authors write.
‘There’s something wrong here’
Like many people in recent weeks, behavioral economist Guglielmo Briscese at the University of Chicago has consumed a lot of news about the coronavirus pandemic. He’s one of the working paper’s authors.
Briscese is from central Italy, an area the new coronavirus has hit hard. He and co-authors Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis and Mirco Tonin, were pursuing separate research in early March. That’s when confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy began rising by the thousands daily.
“Italy was the first country in the western world to be hit so severely by the virus, so we paused these ongoing projects and started talking amongst ourselves,” Briscese says.
Lacetera is an associate management professor at the University of Toronto. Macis is an associate professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University. Tonin is a professor of behavioral economics at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in Italy. Briscese is a postdoctoral researcher. The authors noticed something was off about information the Italian government was relaying through the media.
“We said, ‘There’s something wrong here in the news,’” Briscese says. “Someone from the government says one thing and then another thing and you had conflicting messages from epidemiologists saying, ‘We are here for the long run. This is a marathon, not a sprint.’”
A confusion of shutdowns
The Italian government on March 4 announced schools would be closed through March 15. On March 9, Italians were banned from going outdoors through April 3, except to buy food or medicine. On March 11, most retail stores, bars and restaurants were closed through March 25. Italy was on full shutdown.
“Italy represents a relevant case study as the first Western country to implement self-isolation policies in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which was communicated as a temporary measure to the general public,” the authors write.
The day schools closed in Italy, some residents in Westchester County, north of New York City, were asked to self-quarantine. By March 16, President Donald Trump advised all Americans to stay at home through the end of the month. Less than a week after Italy shut down, the U.S. had shut down, too.
The authors conducted their nationally representative survey of Italian residents from March 18 to 20. Italy’s shutdown is now on until at least April 13. In late March, Trump reset America’s shutdown through April 30.
Aside from the confusion of shutdowns and messaging from government leaders, the common theme is that the shutdown deadlines in Italy and the U.S. weren’t indefinite. They were set, then extended.
The authors wanted to know if “extending measures after creating the expectation that they would be limited in time might reduce people’s acceptance, trust in the authority, and ultimately reduce compliance.”
When expectations well miss their mark
The authors asked participants about various social distancing measures, such as whether they try to keep away from crowds. They also asked how aware participants were of the Italian government’s social distancing time frames, and whether they thought end dates would be pushed to the future.
About 42% of participants live in the red zone — the northern part of Italy where COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, first turned widespread. People over age 60, a group at higher risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, made up 32% of the sample.
“Something we haven’t unpacked in the paper but would be interesting to look at is the perception of risk,” Briscese says. “If you know somebody who’s been affected by the virus or if you are closer to the red zones it’s probably highly likely your perception of the risk is different. That might influence the way you behave.”
About three-quarters of participants correctly reported April 3 as the date the ban on personal movement in Italy had been slated to lift at the time of the survey. But nearly one-third of people over 60 got the end date wrong. Less than one quarter of people under 60 reported the wrong date.
“This suggests there is a sizable fraction of the population who is either confused or not well informed about the timeline of these measures,” the authors write.
About 3% of people said they thought the shutdown would actually end at the government’s original April 3 cutoff. More than one-third said the shutdown would go on as long as needed, with no particular end in sight. When told to assume the government would extend the shutdown for a few weeks, two-thirds of participants said they would maintain their current levels of self-isolation. Two percent said they would, “consider no longer respecting the rules,” the authors write. Those proportions remained about the same when participants considered an extension of a few months and an indefinite extension.
But participants were less likely to increase self-isolation when their expectations didn’t match the hypothetical shutdown extensions. This relationship held for people who expected a short shutdown and were presented an indefinite time frame, and for those who expected an indefinite shutdown but were presented a short time frame.
“To maximize the effectiveness of temporary isolation efforts, authorities must manage public expectations on when such measures will be relaxed or lifted,” the authors write. “Our findings show that expectations about the duration of social isolation measures influence the public’s intention to comply.”