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Keep your (social) distance!

Blog > Published in COVID-19, May 7th, 2020

by Sarah Smith, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol

Life has changed immeasurably in recent weeks. Our society runs on social interactions, but social distancing is now promoted as a socially responsible behaviour that can help to slow the rate of infection and relieve pressure on health services. As a result, schools and universities have closed, along with most shops, restaurants and bars, only essential work is allowed and people are mostly required to stay indoors. In Spain this week, children celebrated after being let out into the fresh air for the first time in six weeks.

The way in which governments introduced social distancing varied across countries. Some imposed full lockdown very quickly. Others, such as the UK Government, seemed at first inclined towards a voluntary approach before moving towards legal restrictions. Sweden has banned gatherings of more than 50 people and stopped visits to retirement homes, but only advised Swedes to work from home and avoid bars and restaurants.

In this article we examine the phenomenon of social distancing. We compare voluntary and mandatory approaches and examine mechanisms that can help to promote socially responsible behaviour.

Voluntary or mandatory? 

A new study reveals that a voluntary approach can be effective. The researchers used Google mobility data to compare the additional effect of legal restrictions over and above voluntary social distancing responses to the number of COVID-19 cases. They found that, for the US, voluntary social distancing was the key factor in explaining the decline in mobility that occurred. The majority of the fall in restaurant reservations, for example, occurred before the imposition of any legal restrictions. The reduction in mobility in Sweden (with no legal restrictions) equalled the reduction in mobility in the US (which imposed legal restrictions). This suggests that legal restrictions may not be the repressive measure that they might appear to be.

What does economics say about when people will do social distancing?  

The economic calculation to decide whether to socially distance involves comparing the costs of social distancing (i.e. missing out on social interactions) with the benefits. These benefits include both the benefit to self (reducing own risk of infection) and the benefit to others (reducing risk of infecting other people). If people are selfish, they will put no weight on the benefit to others. This benefit to others is then a positive externality– i.e. a positive effect of a person’s actions on other people that is not taken into account in decision-making. Failure to internalise the external benefit leads to there being too little voluntary social distancing (it is seen as too costly because only the private benefits, not the total benefits, are considered) and creates a potential case for government intervention to impose lockdown. If lockdown is mandatory, people who are not socially distancing can be fined and this introduces an additional personal benefit to staying at home.

The police issued more than 9,000 fines in April for breaches of lockdown rules (£60 for a first offence, reduced to £30 if paid within two weeks). The data show interesting variation in who has received fines. Young people are disproportionately more likely to be fined. One-third of fines have gone to those aged 18-24, with a further third going to those aged 25-34. This makes sense since older people face a much greater risk of death (88% of deaths have been among people aged 65+ and 43% deaths have been among people aged 85+). Perhaps more surprising, given that nearly 60% of COVID-19 deaths have been among men, men are more than four times as likely to have been fined for violating the lockdown rules than women. Men, it seems, are more likely to be rule-breakers than women.

Altruistic punishment and social norms  

With or without legal requirements, there are a number of potential mechanisms that can increase the level of social distancing beyond that implied by the narrow personal costs/ benefits calculation.

One of these is altruistic punishment i.e. people’s willingness to punish others who behave in an anti-social way in order to encourage pro-social behaviour, even where that punishment is costly.

The economist Elinor Olstrom (one of only two women to win the Nobel Prize) suggested that altruistic punishment was a way in which positive collective outcomes could be achieved in a society, even where individuals had an incentive to free-ride. Suppose social distancing is purely voluntary. The collectively rational outcome is for everyone to engage in social distancing. But if everyone else is socially distancing and reducing the spread of infection, then individuals have an incentive to go out and enjoy themselves – they get all of the benefits and the cost is reduced because the actions of others have lowered their own risk of infection. The individually rational action is to free-ride on the socially responsible behaviour of others and to enjoy the benefits of going out with none of the costs.

The cost-benefit calculation can be tipped in favour of social distancing, however, by other people imposing a punishment on the people who do not socially distance. Economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gaechter showed in lab experiments that people are willing to engage in costly (to themselves) altruistic punishment of others who deviate from collectively rational behaviour. In the current crisis, people who flout the social distancing rules have found themselves reported to the police by their neighbours or publicly shamed, with the vilification of a new public enemy, the Covidiot. Perhaps not all cases of covid reporting and shaming are altruistically motivated – but Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at St Andrews was reported as saying “most people phoning [the police] think they are doing a moral duty. They’re not necessarily evil snitches, they think they’re doing a public good.”

Elinor Ostrom saw altruistic punishment coming into play when people violated social norms, (i.e. common understandings about what people should do in a given situation when their actions affect others). Behaving in a socially responsible way is an example of such a social norm. If a norm is held strongly by the members of a society then violating the norm may itself produce a psychic cost (“I feel bad if I behave in a socially irresponsible way” or “I do not want to see myself as someone who violates social norms”) that can tip the cost-benefit calculation towards social distancing.

Some social norms might work against social distancing, however. Japan has a very strong work culture in which salarymen push themselves to the limit to show their commitment to their employer. In this context, the Japanese Government urging them to stay away from work had only a limited effect; a mandatory requirement on the other hand acts as a co-ordinating device to ensure that none of the salarymen feel that they would look bad by staying away (if no-one is working then I won’t look like a shirker).


Social norms can be shaped and sustained by the cultural values in a society. An important set of values determining socially responsible behaviour is whether a society is individualistic (i.e. stressing individual goals, personal benefits and the rights of the individual person) or collectivist (i.e. stressing collective goals and what is best for a group of people). Anglo countries, Germanic Europe, and Nordic Europe are typically seen as individualistic, although there is variation within this group of countries (see graph), while collectivism is more prevalent in Arab countries, Latin America, Confucian Asia, Southern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Values are important determinants of behaviour and collectivist values may make it easier to sustain social distancing if people are more inclined to think about the collective good. In the US – a country with a very individualistic culture – people have actively protested lockdown measures with slogans such as “I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful slavery”. In the UK, another country with a largely individualistic culture, support for lockdown has been sustained by an appeal to something else at the heart of core British values – the National Health Service, described by a former Downing Street adviser as “more a religion than a health service”. Downing Street polling showed that “stay home, protect the NHS” was likely to be more effective than simply “stay home, save lives” and this message has featured prominently in government communications.

Analysis of responses from Eurobarometer Survey, 2017


A starting point for thinking about whether people will voluntarily socially distance is a private cost/ benefit calculation. The data show a high level of voluntary social distancing, which may be linked to a high level of perceived personal risk (and hence personal benefit from distancing). Legal requirements can help to increase social distancing – either as a co-ordinating device and/or a mechanism to force people to internalise the external benefits. Whether or not there are legal restrictions, norms, values and altruistic punishment are also important in determining whether people stick to lockdown.  

Further Reading

For more on Elinor Ostrom, altruistic punishment and social norms, see CORE’s textbook, The Economy, chapter 4.

Topics for discussion

How do you think that people will behave when lockdown ends? What factors might affect whether they return to work and start going out?

Socially responsible behaviour is an example of a strategic interaction (see the earlier post on panic-buying) and can be examined using the model of the prisoners’ dilemma. Can you analyse social distancing using this framework?

Have a look at the graph. Which countries are individualistic and which are collectivist? What sort of social norms and behaviours would you expect to find in an individualistic country and in a collectivist country? How would you answer the question, and why?

Countries’ cultural values have been shown by economists to matter for economic outcomes, such as economic growth. Which set of values (individualistic or collectivist) do you think is associated with higher growth rates – and why? You can read what researchers have found here.