Is using Common Sense Enough to Avoid Crowded Places during COVID-19?

By Martijn Stroom

Following a period of strict lockdowns in the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries have introduced policies in which people are expected to avoid crowded places, as advised by the World Health Organization. However, popular recreation spots often remain well-visited and as soon as the sun shows itself, we flock together in parks. We all want to stay healthy, but we cannot deny the fact that most of us struggle with a strong urge to go out.

But how can we make a correct decision? For instance, what is considered “crowded”? And if everybody stays away, can I not safely go out? Can I ‘outsmart’ the majority? When ambiguity rises, we tend to use others’ behavior (social influence) to guide our decision. But do we realize that in a pandemic, safety is absolutely not in numbers? Which factors are most important for our decision, and who makes which decision? We find that different people make different decisions. Overall, people try to do good: there is a strong inclination to avoid busy places in general, and people only intend to go when they expect to avoid busy spots. In a busy context, we see that social influence plays a big role. Unfortunately, both scenarios potentially lead to avoidable crowdedness.

In our experiment during the summer of 2020, we propose a simple scenario: “You live within 20 kilometers of a beach, river, forest, or lake. Under normal circumstances, you (and your household) will seek recreation, cooling and refreshing at this area when temperatures exceed 25 degrees Celsius. It’s going to be 30 degrees tomorrow, will you go?”. We ask this question when the official policy is ‘stay home’ and when the policy is ‘avoid busy places’. Moreover, for the latter policy, we add three additional scenarios in which we explain how busy it is on the streets: “You see that it is still very quiet on the streets” (low), “You see that the streets are slowly getting busier” (medium), and “You do not notice any difference in the degree of crowdedness as compared to last year” (high).

Amongst 1,048 Dutch participants, we find that the vast majority of respondents is not planning to go the recreation area (figure 1). Although this appears encouraging for the policy objective to avoid crowded places, an average of 19% of all respondents across all five scenarios still decide to go (all outer rings). When we add context about the level of crowdedness on the streets, more people intend to leave the home (orange outer rings). People will go out more when they perceive the streets as ‘quiet’ (3), and when they have reason to believe that it will be crowded (5). People’s strategic thinking (in the low context) as well as social norms (in the high context) appear to motivate their decision to go.

Visualistatie Policy Paper Shortblog

Moreover, different personal factors predict which people go. For instance, older people tend to go out less often. People who are more risk seeking in general do not go more often, but people that are specifically willing to take risk with their own health do. Additionally, higher educated people tend to go more often in almost all conditions, going out most often in the low context signaling that highly educated people try to act strategically. Unfortunately, in this case those good intentions lead to the worst outcome with the most people going overall.

In sum, the freedom in public policies on COVID-19 is implicitly asking more from the population than it initially seems. “Use your common sense” is often the accompanied advice, but our results show that more and better information concerning the context is essential to enable us to make an optimal decision for ourself, and society.

Download the MCRE Working Paper and summary version here

Download the Dutch ESB version here or view it on ESB here

Download the SSRN Working Paper here