Collaborative Study on Expert Advice and Authority for Enacting Public Good Provides Insight Into COVID-19 Pandemic Policies and Recommendations

Researchers find that the combination of sound expert explanation and legal sanctions is the best way to encourage acts of public good like social distancing

April 21, 2020 Samantha Watters

Paying your taxes or practicing social distancing may not be things that any of us particularly enjoy, but in economics terminology, both of these actions contribute to the public good. Right now, actions that can help stop the spread of COVID-19 are contributions to better society, and according to a collaborative research study from the University of Maryland (UMD), the University of Michigan, and Arizona State University, a combination of sound expert advice and authoritative enforcement is the best way to encourage compliance. In a study published in the Journal of Public Economics, researchers found that authority needs to provide both expert explanation and the threat of enforcement in order to achieve results with public good policies, not just one or the other. These results have implications for the policy and communication tactics taken to curb COVID-19 by Governor Hogan and other leaders during this time of crisis. 

“We did not motivate this paper by a pandemic; it was more general in the sense of public goods,” explains Neslihan Uler, assistant professor in Agricultural & Resource Economics at UMD. “But I see a direct connection between the paper and what’s happening right now. While the implications in the paper are related to tax evasion, which is a perfect fit as an example of an everyday policy for this research, it applies to much more. It applies to most public good provisions, including health.”

Researchers were interested in understanding behavioral responses to authority, which Uler says is a very important topic in public economics, but one that has received insufficient attention in the field, and has never before been studied in relation to compliance to regulations set up for the public good, or the good of society. “We believe that authority is central to questions in public economics,” says Uler. “There is a lot of work in psychology experiments in authority and obedience, but we are trying to understand it in terms of public goods provision, thinking of authority as government or an organization, which is different from thinking of authority as a person.”

More specifically, researchers wanted to understand how people respond to two different sources of authority: expert knowledge and expertise, defined in the paper as “authority in”, or authorities such as the government that punish people for non-compliance, defined in the paper as “authority to”. This phenomenon is difficult to study in the field because you cannot assign or randomize different aspects of authority across jurisdictions. Therefore, researchers set up a laboratory experiment where they could randomly assign participants to receive either expert advice, the threat of punishment, both, or neither. Participants were then given a scenario where they could decide whether to contribute to the good of the group as a whole, how much to contribute, or to not contribute at all.

“In the experiment, we used tokens to signify contributions to the public good,” says Uler. “Some would get an explanation from an expert as to how much to contribute to maximize the total payout and why, others would be told if they didn’t give a certain amount they would be punished, and some were told both or given no guidance at all. Because this is a public good, if everyone contributes the recommended amount of tokens and you don’t, it is easy to see that this is the best for you individually. But if no one contributes, that’s actually the worst possible outcome for you. So as a society, it’s best if everyone contributes the recommended amount for the collective good.”

This was more than just a hypothetical, however, explains Uler. “At the end of the experiment, we converted all the payment that was earned into dollars, so it was a real decision making process for them. It’s easy to say I’ll do what’s best for society in a hypothetical situation, but this design gets at the real life decision making process.”

The results ultimately show that while expert advice alone or authoritative control alone doesn’t help in cases like this where detecting non-compliance isn’t always easy (in avoiding taxes or social distancing, for example), what does help is a combination of the two methods. “Because detection is low, punishment itself doesn’t help, and only explaining why this is best for everyone without punishment doesn’t help either. But using them together, there is a really interesting interaction effect,” says Uler.

Uler directly relates this to non-compliance we have seen for COVID-19 control behaviors. “Think of social distancing. Especially in the beginning, people thought if you were young and healthy, there was no risk for you. So basically, the only reason you would practice social distancing is to help the society as a whole. That’s the public good aspect, and many young and healthy people didn’t do it. They just ignored it or met with friends, and it is hard to detect that in some cases. But our results support a combination of expert explanation of why social distancing is effective and enforcement to get the maximum benefit.”

Uler adds, “Social distancing or putting a mask on, these kinds of things are uncomfortable or costly for an individual to do, but if they do, this really helps the fight against COVID-19 and is very helpful to the society as a whole. Our research has implications for this because if you just make the expert explanation, it fails. Mild punishment also fails. But what works according to our research is the combination of these two things together.”

In the future, Uler and researchers hope to look at more uncertain cases where authority itself is confused about how to advise or manage actions for the public good, and how trust in authority figures and experts plays a role in compliance. With messaging on topics like COVID-19 coming from all different sources and directions, this work can help guide future policies and communication strategies for situations like these.

The paper, entitled “Distinguishing the role of authority ‘in’ and authority ‘to’”, is published in the Journal of Public Economics, DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2014.02.003.