Jesper Akesson, Sam Ashworth-Hayes, Robert Hahn, Robert D. Metcalfe, Itzhak Rasooly

Bibliographic Information

NBER Working Paper No. 27245
Issued in May 2020
NBER Program(s):HC, PE

Available Formats


Little is known about individual beliefs concerning the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Still less is known about how these beliefs influence the spread of the virus by determining social distancing behaviors. To shed light on these questions, we conduct an online experiment (n = 3,610) with participants in the US and UK. Participants are randomly allocated to a control group, or one of two treatment groups. The treatment groups are shown upper- or lower-bound expert estimates of the infectiousness of the virus. We present three main empirical findings. First, individuals dramatically overestimate the infectiousness of COVID-19 relative to expert opinion. Second, providing people with expert information partially corrects their beliefs about the virus. Third, the more infectious people believe that COVID-19 is, the less willing they are to take social distancing measures, a finding we dub the “fatalism effect”. We estimate that small changes in people's beliefs can generate billions of dollars in mortality benefits. Finally, we develop a theoretical model that can explain the fatalism effect.

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