What makes us comply with the rules? Behavioural economics holds some clues for how to enforce coronavirus measures. To really get everyone involved in preventing coronavirus, the government needs to communicate better and try to restore trust.
First published in September 2020.
The UK is under a new coronavirus regime – one in which pubs close at 10pm and businesses not deemed “COVID-secure” can be forced to close. That also means there is a new set of fines for those who break the rules, for example, by not wearing a mask in the back of a taxi.
Compliance with coronavirus rules has been decreasing over time, which is expected – I predicted as much back in May. To combat this, the UK government has doubled the fine for first offences from £100 to £200, and introduced penalties of up to £10,000 for breaking isolation, in the hope that the new penalties will increase compliance with the rules.
But will it work?
Why we comply
In economics, there has been a sustained interest in the effects of sanctions on behaviour since at least the late 1960s. In particular, the literature on compliance in paying taxes, which has interesting parallels with the domain of health.
Three parallels between paying tax and complying with coronavirus measures are noteworthy:
- The action taken (paying taxes, staying indoors, wearing a mask, washing hands) is costly for the individual.
- Compliance benefits society as a whole.
- Both individual and societal benefits are hard to observe.
This last point is particularly important. When benefits are hard to observe, our perception of them becomes critically important for the question of whether we comply. For some, the perceived benefits are high, perhaps higher than the actual benefits accrued to society and the individual. For others, the perceived benefits are low, perhaps lower than the costs they must pay to comply.
From here, it is relatively straightforward to see that for some, the perceived benefits are high enough to outweigh the costs of compliance, and hence these people choose to comply. For others, the perceived benefits of compliance are lower than the costs, and hence they do not. So to increase compliance, the perceived benefits of doing so need to increase.
The problem is that perceptions are hard to shift, and require high degrees of trust and consistent communication from those asking you change your behaviour. Instead, policymakers have traditionally focused on enforcement and deterrence, effectively raising the costs of non-compliance.
Why deterrence doesn’t work
To see why simply increasing fines may not be the best way to change behaviour, let’s follow the literature and distinguish between two aspects of compliance:
- Voluntary compliance. This is where we follow the rules even in the absence of enforcement mechanisms. This represents a high degree of cooperation and is the level of compliance that governments typically aim for.
- Enforced compliance. This is when we comply with a rule solely to avoid fines. Enforced compliance typically increases adherence to only those rules that are observable and enforceable. This represents a low degree of cooperation.
To increase enforced compliance, the government has three options: increase monitoring, increase fines or to increase both. Increasing monitoring is very expensive as it requires, for example, extra policing. Increasing fines is the cheaper policy option, and can allow for additional monitoring over time if necessary.
But there are drawbacks to both these approaches. The first is that they generally apply to easily observable phenomenon such as wearing a mask at a store, but not to washing hands at home. This means that the range of behaviours you can target with enforced compliance strategies are limited. The second drawback is that these strategies can backfire and actually reduce compliance, particularly if the fines are perceived as unfair. Studies of tax payers in Chile, Argentina and the US state of Minnesota have all shown that increased auditing can have the unintended effect of decreasing the amount of tax paid.
In a recent paper, my coauthors and I used data from 44 countries to show that, when it comes to paying taxes, if citizens believe authorities can detect and sanction behaviour easily, enforced compliance increases because of the fear of being found out. In the same vein, if people believe the authorities are working in the best interest of citizens, voluntary compliance increases.
Compliance and coronavirus
In the absence of a vaccine, voluntary compliance remains our best defence against COVID-19. Yet recent protests in the UK against the regulations show that there is a lot more that needs to be done to get people on board.
Research carried out over the course of the current pandemic has shown that people are more likely to voluntarily follow the rules when their perceived risk of catching the virus is high, and when they believe that compliance is effective in avoiding COVID-19.
So beyond the new coronavirus fines, the government should focus on getting people to do the right thing because they want to, wherever they are. The way to do this is to focus on communicating guidelines clearly and taking steps to gain and retain citizen trust.
Communication of the dangers of non-compliance needs to be clear and consistent, something that has not always been the case so far. The Dominic Cummings scandal – in which the senior government adviser was revealed to have broken the rules by driving to Durham from London during lockdown – badly damaged trust in the government. Confusion over whether the government and its scientific advisers actually supported the idea of herd immunity at the start of the pandemic has also muddied the waters significantly.
Fines for failing to follow the rules may bring some people into line for fear of being found out. But to really get everyone involved in preventing coronavirus by washing hands, physically distancing and wearing masks, the government needs to communicate better and try to restore trust.🔷
Dr Sheheryar Banuri, Behavioural Economist. Assistant Professor, University of East Anglia. Expert on motivation and incentives, behaviour, and public policy.