Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Mehdi Shadmehr

Coordination and Social Distancing: Inertia in the Aggregate Response to COVID-19

Social distancing is critical to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, social distancing in the wake of COVID-19 has been frustratingly slow and inadequate. Here we use a game theoretic model to show that, when a new and rare virus, like COVID-19, emerges, the aggregate level of social distancing has inherent inertia, and that clear national public statements are essential in reducing that inertia and adjusting the public’s behavior to the new, optimal level of social distancing. Novel infectious diseases abruptly change the appropriate level of social distancing, leaving individuals uncertain about how to act. Inertia arises in such a setting because individuals care about conforming to social norms (e.g., it is awkward to refuse a social invitation or work request) and the previous level of social distancing provides a focal point to coordinate behavior. Clear and consistent national statements about the new optimal level of social distancing enable individuals and communities to coordinate on new norms of behavior, reducing inertia and moving the society closer to the optimum. Such national statements generate a beneficial over-reaction from the public that offsets the over-weighting of past experience. National communications are preferable to communications through local governments or employers when the optimal levels of social distancing are highly correlated over-time and when individuals are poorly informed about changes in the optimal level of social distancing. Our results show the utility of game theoretic models in disease control and public health policy.

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The University of Chicago