COVID-19 Has a Negative Influence on Prosocial Behavior

Summary: COVID-19 infections in families widened the pro-social gap almost three-fold between people with higher socioeconomic status and those from backgrounds of lower socioeconomic status.

Source: Max Planck Institute

COVID-19 has particularly negative effects on people who come from economically weaker and less educated backgrounds, especially when we look at health, job security and education – this is shown by figures and studies from recent months. How the coronavirus pandemic affects prosocial behaviour, on the other hand, is still largely unknown.

A group of economic researchers led by Matthias Sutter has now been able to show that prosocial behavior is also negatively affected by the pandemic. And here, too, it is primarily the socially weaker individuals who are affected.

An infection with the coronavirus within the family leads to a drastic reduction in prosocial behavior in adolescents from socioeconomically weaker families. This means that their willingness to trust other people, to cooperate with them or to help them decreases significantly.

This finding is the result of a study conducted by the behavioral economist Matthias Sutter, who works at the Universities of Innsbruck and Cologne and at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, in collaboration with a research team from the University of Lausanne and the Toulouse School of Economics.

Prosocial Behavior is Important for Success on the Job Market

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the research team had initially begun, in a study, to investigate friendship networks among schoolchildren. To this end, they were able to collect 5,000 data sets in French high schools as early as the fall of 2019. The researchers then repeated their study during the pandemic with a smaller number of the same test subjects. In the process, they were able to establish an interesting correlation that had not been the focus of the actual study:

This shows a man offering a helping hand to a man sitting on a street
Helpfulness is an important component of prosocial behaviour. A study has now found that the Covid-19 pandemic can have a negative impact on prosocial behaviour among young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged households. Credit: MPI

“Prosociality was already lower among adolescents with low social status before the pandemic, and our data now show that COVID-19 infections in families widened the prosociality gap almost threefold between participants with higher social status and those with lower social status,” says Sutter.

The economics researcher sees the relevance of this result primarily in the fact that prosocial behavior is a decisive factor in professional life.

“Previous studies in behavioral economics provide clear evidence for the connection between prosocial behavior and success on the labor market. The importance of these soft skills ultimately stems from the fact that getting along well with one another is also what everyday working life is all about,” explains Sutter.

While it is acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic led to higher mortality rates and more frequent job losses in socioeconomically less advantaged households, the negative effects on prosocial behavior are only becoming apparent from the current study.

“The presumption is that this trend will harm the affected young adults in the long run, resulting in additional disadvantages to them. This is an aspect that has so far received little attention in the public discussion,” Matthias Sutter points out.

Four Experiments to Measure Prosocial Behavior

In total, during the first survey in the fall of 2019, the research team was able to collect data from 5,000 high-school students, aged between 15 and 17, from the three French cities of Nantes, Montpellier and Créteil. Contacting the same adolescents proved difficult in the second wave of data collection in May and June 2020, due to lockdowns and the associated homeschooling. Ultimately, 363 participants from the first wave took part in the experiments again.

The researchers captured prosocial behavior using four different experiments that measured the ability to trust and cooperate, as well as the degrees of altruism and generosity.

About this COVID-19 and behavior research news

Author: Matthias Sutter
Source: Max Planck Institute
Contact: Matthias Sutter – Max Planck Institute
Image: The image is credited to MPI

Original Research: Open access.
COVID-19 within families amplifies the prosociality gap between adolescents of high and low socioeconomic status” by Camille Terrier, Daniel L. Chen, Matthias Sutter. PNAS


COVID-19 within families amplifies the prosociality gap between adolescents of high and low socioeconomic status

COVID-19 has had worse health, education, and labor market effects on groups with low socioeconomic status (SES) than on those with high SES. Little is known, however, about whether COVID-19 has also had differential effects on noncognitive skills that are important for life outcomes. Using panel data from before and during the pandemic, we show that COVID-19 affects one key noncognitive skill, that is, prosociality.

While prosociality is already lower for low-SES students prior to the pandemic, we show that COVID-19 infections within families amplify the prosociality gap between French high school students of high and low SES by almost tripling its size in comparison to pre–COVID-19 levels.

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