May 2020

IZA DP No. 13207: Prosocial Behavior in the Time of COVID-19: The Effect of Private and Public Role Models

Martin Abel, Willa Brown

In public good provision and other collective action problems, people are uncertain about how to balance self-interest and prosociality. Actions of others may inform this decision. We conduct an experiment to test the effect of watching private citizens and public officials acting in ways that either increase or decrease the spread of the coronavirus. For private role models, positive examples lead to a 34% increase in donations to the CDC Emergency Fund and a 20% increase in learning about COVID-19-related volunteering compared to negative examples. For public role models these effects are reversed. Negative examples lead to a 29% and 53% increase in donations and volunteering, respectively. Results are consistent with the Norm Activation Model: positive private role models lead to more prosocial behavior because they increase norms of trust, while negative public role models increase a sense of responsibility among individuals which convinces them to act more prosocially.