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What Drives Social Behavior During The COVID-19 Pandemic

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with economist Plamen Nikolov from State University of New York at Binghamton, about how the pandemic is altering the way we behave.


How do social scientists account for how we’ve behaved or misbehaved during this public health crisis? After all, what we do matters, and right now we may very well be the problem. Plamen Nikolov teaches economics at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He’s investigating how biases influence whether or not we’ll wear our masks and practice social distancing – things that we’re supposed to do. And he joins us now. Professor Nikolov, welcome to the program.

PLAMEN NIKOLOV: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for speaking with me today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you are an economist. How does economics as a branch of study deal with questions of public health?

NIKOLOV: One of the main features that makes us unique is that we view health as an investment. And we basically view that any decision that people make – for example, whether a person decides to have a carrot versus a cookie or go to the gym versus watching a movie – is an investment decision. And so in that sense, we view social distancing and mask wearing also as an investment decision that a person makes and that he or she would basically compare the benefits of that decision versus the costs that this decision entails.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You’re crunching the numbers now. What is the point of the study, though? What are you trying to understand?

NIKOLOV: Given that, currently, there is no treatment for COVID-19, there is no – there’s no vaccine – we’re trying to understand, what are the effective levers for individual behavior, given that the only option for us, as social scientists and also policymakers, is to curb the epidemic via measures like social distancing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Human behavior.

NIKOLOV: Exactly. And then it’s – kind of as an extension of that, that would actually also help us understand, among the set of all these factors that are actually drivers of human behavior, which among those are actually malleable?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are there other public health issues that are comparable to this pandemic when it comes to questions of human behavior? I’m thinking about secondhand smoking or seatbelts or even littering.

NIKOLOV: There are. So a similar phenomenon has actually been found where people, for example, don’t save enough for retirement because of the tendency and the idea that people misperceive the benefits of compounding – in this case, in the context of interest accumulation. In our context, we’re taking this idea further and trying to examine to what extent people actually don’t understand the risk associated with getting the virus by virtue of the fact that one infected person can infect multiple people and then, in turn, those people – each of those people can actually infect multiple other people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I know you can’t tell us what you’ve assessed now, but is there anything that you think will surprise you about what you’re seeing?

NIKOLOV: So one thing that I would be very curious to see is to what extent there may actually be a wedge and gap between these two measures of subjective assessment versus objective assessment of risk and to what extent we actually could see some differences between those two measures on various dimensions of political affiliation, risk preferences and the source of news that people use on a daily basis because those are the kinds of things that I expect would be much more easy for policymakers to influence in some way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Plamen Nikolov, an assistant professor of economics at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Thank you very much.

NIKOLOV: Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

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