COVID-19 - Coronavirus disease 2019

Social distancing and pro-sociality in times of acute sanitary crisis – DISTANCING

Submission summary

This project belongs to the priority “Ethics -Human and Social Sciences” and the topic “Representations, perceptions, attitudes, behavior relative to the epidemic”.

Context. To stop the current coronavirus pandemic, the governments of most developed countries are implementing drastic measures to contain populations, in order to create social distancing and limit contagion. Given the unprecedented nature of the current health crisis situation and the scale of political interventions to fight infection, our knowledge of the impact of such social distancing rules on the social preferences of individuals is almost null. Yet, it is crucially important to know whether the pro-sociality of individuals, their willingness to trust others as well as their social norms will be affected by the pandemic and containment measures and if so, in which direction (reinforcement of pro-sociality vs. selfishness). This likely modification of such preferences that are fundamental for life in society could have spillover effects in other areas of economic and social decision-making in the future, beyond the end of the confinement rules and of the pandemic. The potential change in social preferences may affect the way people will respond to future interventions adopted to contain the spread of the virus.

Objective. Our objective is to study whether the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and the massive and drastic public policies of social distancing implemented to curb the spread of the virus (in particular, confinement from March 16, 2020 and possibly curfew in the future if the situation worsens) affect the social preferences of individuals (specifically, their pro-sociality, trust in others, and perception of the social norm regarding the violation of the social distancing rule). The research question is whether the withdrawal generated by confinement, social isolation and fear of contagion will lead individuals to develop more selfish preferences and less trust in others, and weaken the perception of the social norm regarding the violation of the rule. On the other hand, individuals may increase their use of social networks to stay in contact with others, and they may develop compassion for the victims; in this case, their pro-sociality and trust in others may increase and the norm against violators of the rule may become stricter. The net result of social distancing on social preferences is unknown. The research program will be able to determine which changes in social preferences and trust will result from this major and unprecedented health crisis. The results will be also an important test for behavioral economics that admits the malleability of preferences contrary to the standard approach in economics that assumes the stability of preferences.

Method. The approach is rooted in behavioral and experimental economics. It consists of eliciting individuals’ social preferences and normative views through incentivized decision making in various games. Precisely, we plan to conduct an online experiment with approximately 350 participants who will have to log in each week from March 18 to June 24 on our website (15 sessions). The composition of each session will be similar. It will include a social value orientation test (SVO test of Murphy et al., 2011), a trust game and a questionnaire which will mainly measure the degree of social distancing with family and friends, and the social norm regarding the violation of the social distancing rule. These various measures seek to identify the degree of pro-sociality of the individuals, their propensity to trust strangers and to reciprocate others’ trust, and their perception of the social norm regarding the violation of the social distancing rule. The repetition of the measurements every week for three months will allow us to measure if social preferences and normative views evolve over time according to the possible hardening and subsequent lifting of the confinement measures.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 28,620 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 12 Months

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