COVID-19 is first and foremost a social dilemma

To be good or not to be good, that’s the question most of us ask, a lot

The key insight

Our collective response as a society to COVID-19 represents what economists would call a social dilemma. We all benefit if most of us behave cooperatively and follow recommendations from authorities to self-isolate, exercise self-restraint by not hoarding toilet paper or hand sanitiser. However, each of us has an incentive to free ride on the cooperation of others by granting ourselves an exception, while hoping everyone else will comply. The nature of a social dilemma is that it ends in the worst possible outcome where everybody is granting themselves an exception, and no one is complying with the collective rules.

So how can we prevent the breakdown of social cooperation in the current COVID-19 crisis?

It starts with an understanding of how people are likely to behave in social dilemma situations. Our research, based on a large sample of more than 7,000 individuals, shows around about 60% are ‘conditional co-operators’ who will comply if they believe others will. 20% of the population are selfish ‘free-riders’ who will not cooperate in most social dilemma situations, while 3% are ‘altruists’ who will always cooperate.  Another 10% are so-called ‘triangle co-operators’. They behave similarly to conditional co-operators, but only to the point where they believe enough people are cooperating. They then reduce their cooperation. The remainder – about 7% – behave unpredictably.

The government’s focus should be on the two main groups. Conditional co-operators behaviour is very sensitive to what they believe most others will do. They will only pay taxes, save water or protect the environment if they believe most others will do likewise.

Two mechanisms are absolutely essential to navigate through the current COVID-19 social dilemma. Firstly, effective and consistent communication reassuring the majority of conditional co-operators to uphold their belief in equality and egalitarianism. This involves show-casing exemplary acts of cooperation and granting no preferential treatment to any kind of interest group. Secondly, swift and visible punishment of free riders and strict enforcement of rules by authorities and by society in general to assure that nobody gets away with uncooperative behaviour in these testing times.

Our collective response as a society to COVID-19 represents what economists would call a social dilemma. We all benefit if most of us would behave cooperatively and follow recommendations from authorities to self-isolate and self-restrain: no hoarding toilet paper, pasta, face masks, or hand sanitiser. However, each and every one of us has an incentive to deviate and free ride on the cooperation of others: continuing to go out shopping or even to work because we actually don’t feel that sick. Or sending the kids to buy that extra bottle of hand sanitiser which is restricted to one bottle per costumer while hoping everyone else will comply.

The nature of a social dilemma is such that in most cases it ends in the worst possible outcome where everybody is granting themselves an exception, and no one is complying with collective rules, which results in a complete breakdown of co-operation.

So how can we prevent the breakdown of social cooperation in the current COVID-19 crisis?

It starts with an understanding of how people are likely to behave in social dilemma situations. Around 60% of people are ‘conditional co-operators’: they will cooperate if they believe others will do likewise. From our study of more than 7,000 individuals (recently published in the journal Economics Letters) we also estimate that around 20% of the population are free riders who will behave selfishly and not co-operate in most social dilemma situations, while 3% are ‘altruists’ who will always co-operate. Another 10% are so-called ‘triangle co-operators’: they behave similarly to conditional co-operators, but only to the point where they believe enough people are co-operating. They then reduce their co-operation. The remainder – about 7% – behave unpredictably.

Our response to a social dilemma situation should therefore focus on the two main groups: conditional co-operators and free riders. For the first group, we know their behaviour is very sensitive to what they believe most others will do. Conditional co-operators will only pay taxes, safe water, donate to charities, or protect the environment if they believe most others will do so as well. In order to maintain the cooperation of this largest group it is absolutely essential to uphold their beliefs in equality and egalitarianism, where everyone does their part, nobody gets preferential treatment, and nobody gets away with free riding and selfish behaviour.

Indeed, research has clearly demonstrated that a minority of free riders in a large group of conditional co-operators is sufficient to cause a complete breakdown of co-operation over time. As soon as conditional co-operators start to realise that one or a few others do not comply with the collectively agreed rules, they will start reducing their own co-operation which in turn will cause others to also reduce their co-operation, creating a downward spiral resulting in a breakdown of co-operation.

However, the same research also shows that effective, swift, and visible punishment of free riders reassures conditional co-operator’s beliefs and effectively maintains high levels of collective cooperation. In fact, it has been shown that a minority of conditional co-operators can discipline a large majority of free-riders and uphold cooperation, if they have the means to punish selfish behaviour.

In conclusion, our research indicates that two mechanisms will be absolutely essential to navigate through the current COVID-19 social dilemma. Firstly, effective and consistent communication reassuring the majority of conditional co-operators to uphold their belief in equality and egalitarianism. This involves show-casing exemplary acts of co-operation and granting no preferential treatment to any kind of interest group. Secondly, swift and visible punishment of free riders and strict enforcement of rules by authorities, and also by society in general, to assure that nobody gets away with uncooperative behaviour in these testing times.


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Image: Maria Massouh

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