Don’t get it or don’t spread it: comparing self-interested versus prosocial motivations for COVID-19 prevention behaviors

by | Oct 12, 2021 | Science & News

By Jillian J. Jordan, et al.


COVID-19 prevention behaviors may be seen as self-interested or prosocial. Using American samples from MTurk and Prolific (total n = 6850), we investigated which framing is more effective—and motivation is stronger—for fostering prevention behavior intentions. We evaluated messaging that emphasized personalpublic, or personal and public benefits of prevention. In initial studies (conducted March 14–16, 2020), the Public treatment was more effective than the Personal treatment, and no less effective than the Personal + Public treatment. In additional studies (conducted April 17–30, 2020), all three treatments were similarly effective. Across all these studies, the perceived public threat of coronavirus was also more strongly associated with prevention intentions than the perceived personal threat. Furthermore, people who behaved prosocially in incentivized economic games years before the pandemic had greater prevention intentions. Finally, in a field experiment (conducted December 21–23, 2020), we used our three messaging strategies to motivate contact-tracing app signups (n = 152,556 newsletter subscribers). The design of this experiment prevents strong causal inference; however, the results provide suggestive evidence that the Personal + Public treatment may have been more effective than the Personal or Public treatment. Together, our results highlight the importance of prosocial motives for COVID-19 prevention.


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of deaths worldwide, and continues to pose an enormous global threat. It thus remains essential that people engage in behaviors that help prevent infection (e.g., masking, personal hygiene, and physical distancing)1 even after the initial introduction of vaccines2. Many preventative behaviors, however, are difficult to adhere to or require substantial personal sacrifices. What motivates people to engage in them?

One reason this question is interesting is that coronavirus prevention behaviors protect both the individuals who engage in them and society at large. Thus, they may be conceptualized as either self-interested actions (that serve to benefit the actor) or as cooperative efforts (that, in addition to benefiting the actor, serve also to benefit others in society). Here we investigate the relative strength of these motivations, and the relative efficacy of these framings, for encouraging prevention behaviors.

One might naturally expect a dominant role of self-interest for coronavirus prevention. According to classical economic theories of decision-making, people care only for their own welfare. This perspective would suggest that self-interest should be the strongest motivator. As Adam Smith famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”3.

Yet while the classical economic perspective remains highly influential, behavioral scientists are increasingly aware of the importance of more psychologically informed theories4,5,6,7. Research in psychology and behavioral economics provides clear evidence that people care about the welfare of others and are motivated to cooperate8,9,10,11,12, and that people strive to avoid appearing selfish in the eyes of others and are highly sensitive to social norms13,14,15,16. Thus, psychological research reveals that people have “prosocial motivations” (a term we use to refer to any motivation to promote the welfare of others—including those that may be implicitly or explicitly driven by reputation concerns or the desire to adhere to social norms).

While much of this research—which has focused extensively on behavior in economic games—suggests that people care more about their own welfare than the welfare of others, regard for others seems especially strong in the domain of physically aversive outcomes. Experiments reveal that people sometimes voluntarily undergo painful experiences to relieve the suffering of others17. Furthermore, people tend to be more risk-averse when making decisions on behalf of others18, including in the context of physical harm19. And evidence suggests that when people are tasked with allocating pain between themselves versus others, they tend to behave more generously than when they are tasked with allocating money between themselves versus others20,21,22.

In one such study, people were actually less willing to harm others than to harm themselves23. However, other studies have demonstrated that, even in the domain of harm, people prioritize their own outcomes equally or above the outcomes of others20,21,22. Thus, previous basic science research investigating prosociality provides some reason to doubt that self-interested motives are dominant, and self-interested framings are more effective, for coronavirus prevention. Yet it nonetheless provides no clear prediction regarding the relative role of prosociality.

Another stream of applied research has investigated self-interested versus prosocial motives in the context of health behavior (and especially vaccination decisions), and has provided clear evidence that both motives can encourage disease prevention24,25,26,27,28. A few studies have directly compared the relative effectiveness of personal versus public framing in vaccination appeals, with inconsistent results: some studies found that public framing was ineffective29,30,31, while others provided some mixed evidence for the effectiveness of public framing32,33; and a set of field studies investigating handwashing among healthcare professionals found that it was more effective to emphasize patient safety than personal safety34. Thus, the literature surrounding disease spread prevention likewise does not make a clear prediction regarding the relative importance of self-interested versus prosocial motivations, and the relative efficacy of self-interested versus prosocial framing, for coronavirus prevention.

To investigate, we measure the influence of three messaging treatments on intentions to engage in COVID-19 prevention behaviors: one that emphasizes personal benefits of prevention (Personal message), one that emphasizes public benefits of prevention (Public message), and one that emphasizes both types of benefits (Personal + Public message). Our Personal message was designed to encourage subjects to simply consider the value of prevention behaviors for themselves, while our Public message was designed to prompt subjects to consider that prevention behaviors can, in addition to conferring personal benefits, also benefit others. Finally, our Personal + Public message was designed to explicitly encourage subjects to consider both types of benefits.

In a first set of studies (Studies 1–2, total n = 2176) conducted early in the pandemic (between March 14 and March 16, 2020, at which time there were under 2000 confirmed U.S. cases), we find that (i) the Public message was more effective than the Personal message, and (ii) the Personal + Public message was no more effective than the Public message. In a second a set of studies (Study 3a–d, total n = 3985) conducted slightly later in the pandemic (between April 17 and April 30, 2020, at which time there were 500,000 to 1,000,000 confirmed U.S. cases), we find that all three messaging strategies were similarly effective.

We also take a correlational approach to investigate the extent to which prosocial versus self-interested motivations predict prevention intentions. Across Studies 1–3, as well as an additional study using a more representative sample (Study 4), we consistently find that the perceived public threat of coronavirus is a stronger predictor of prevention intentions than the perceived personal threat. And in Study 5, by linking data from Studies 1–3 to an external dataset of incentivized economic game decisions, we find that people who behaved prosocially years before the pandemic report greater prevention intentions.

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