Perceived Costs and Benefits of COVID-19 Social Distancing Measures and Compliance Behaviors: Evidence from Subjective Expectations

by Pamela Giustinelli in collaboration with University College London


The Covid-19 pandemic is confronting experts, policy-makers, and citizens with many dimensions of (deep) uncertainty and difficult choices. The adoption, strictness, and expected duration of social distancing measures vary greatly across (and within) countries. Citizens, in turn, exhibit different degrees of compliance. Hence, understanding the perceived costs and benefits of social distancing is of fundamental importance.

We study these issues by leveraging recent advances in survey design and econometric analysis of probabilistic expectations. We survey a representative sample of 1,000 individuals in the United Kingdom (under lockdown since March 23) regarding their perceived costs and benefits from complying with the social distancing measures implemented - including subjective probabilities of contracting Coronavirus, being hospitalized or fined, becoming unemployed or socially isolated. Respondents’ subjective probabilities are elicited on a numerical scale of percent chance, randomizing the traditional point expectations format and a novel interval format.

Our preliminary results show that the responses have the expected patterns. For example, the perceived probability of contracting coronavirus decreases with the degree of compliance; conversely, the respondents believe that under stricter compliance their personal relationships are more likely to worsen, and they are more likely to become depressed. We also find significant uncertainty around these probabilities. By combining these data with respondents’ compliance behaviors (current and expected) and personal characteristics, we quantify the trade-offs different individuals face. We develop and estimate a model of compliance behavior which quantifies the monetary compensation required to be socially isolated-providing key information to policymakers.