Correcting Perceived Social Distancing Norms to Combat COVID-19
Can informing people of high rates of community support for social distancing encourage them to do more of it? Our Mozambican study population underestimated the rate of community support for social distancing, believing support to be only 69%, while the true share was 98%. In theory, informing people of high rates of community support has ambiguous effects on social distancing, depending on whether a perceived-infectiousness effect dominates a free-riding effect. We randomly assigned a "social norm correction" treatment, informing people of true high rates of community support for social distancing. We examine an improved measure of social distancing combining detailed self-reports with reports on the respondent by others in the community. The treatment increases social distancing where COVID-19 case loads are high (where the perceived-infectiousness effect dominates), but decreases it where case loads are low (where free-riding dominates). Separately, randomized local-leader endorsements of social distancing are ineffective. As COVID-19 case loads continue to rise, interventions such as the social norm correction treatment should show increased effectiveness at promoting social distancing.
Faustino Lessitala provided top-notch leadership and field management. Patricia Freitag, Ryan McWay, and Maggie Barnard provided excellent research assistance. Julie Esch, Laura Kaminski, and Lauren Tingwall's grant management was world-class. This work is supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Innovation in Government Initiative through a grant from The Effective Altruism Global Health and Development Fund (grant number IGI-1366), the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office awarded through Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) Peace & Recovery Program (grant number MIT0019-X9), the Michigan Institute for Teaching and Research in Economics (MITRE) Ulmer Fund (grant number G024289), and the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (award number T32AG000221). Our protocols were reviewed and approved by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) at the University of Michigan (Health Sciences and Social and Behavioral Sciences IRB, approval number HUM00113011) and the Mozambique Ministry of Health National Committee on Bioethics for Health (CNBS reference number 302/CNBS/20). The study was submitted to the AEA RCT Registry on May 26, 2020, registration ID number AEARCTR-0005862. The content of this paper is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the aforementioned institutions. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.