Avoiding Crowded Places During COVID-19: Simple Choice or Complex Strategic Decision?

30 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2021 Last revised: 1 Sep 2021

See all articles by Martijn Stroom

Martijn Stroom

Maastricht University, School of Business and Economics

Piet Eichholtz

Maastricht University

Nils Kok

University of Maastricht - Limburg Institute of Financial Economics (LIFE)

Date Written: April 8, 2021

Abstract

Introduction: Following a period of strict lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries introduced policies in which citizens were expected to avoid crowded places using common sense, as advised by the WHO. We argue that the ambiguity in the recommendation to “avoid crowded places” implicitly forces individuals to make a complex strategic decision.

Methods: Using a Dutch representative sample of 1,048 participants [42% male, mean age = 43.78 years (SD=12.53), we examine the effect of context on the decision to visit a hypothetical recreational hotspot under the policy recommendation to “avoid crowded places”. We randomize four levels of context on the crowdedness “on the streets” (no context, low, medium, and high context). Subsequently, participants are asked to estimate the percentage of others going out in the same situation. Finally, we assess the impact of a selection of personal characteristics on the likelihood of visiting a crowded place.

Results: Respondents are proportionally more likely to go in a low context and high context, compared to no context (diff = .121, p<.000, and diff = .034, p<.05, respectively) and middle context (diff = .125, p<.000, and diff = .037, p<.05, respectively). Low context information also decreases the expectation of others going out (-2.63%, z = 4.68, p<.000). High context information increases the expected percentage of others going out (significant only for medium to high context; 2.94%, z=7.34, p<.001). Furthermore, we show that education, age, and health and risk attitude are all predictive of the likelihood to visit a crowded place, notwithstanding the context.

Discussion: Although there is a strong inclination to avoid crowded places during the COVID-19 pandemic (81%), we find two context-driven exceptions: when people expect to avoid crowded spots (in the “low” context, i.e. strategical decision-making) and when people expect others to go (social influence). The freedom provided by ambiguous public policy 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 ourselves, and for society.

Note: Funding Statement: Personal research fund utilized.

Declaration of Interests: No conflicts of interest reported.

Ethics Approval Statement: This research was reviewed and approved by Maastricht University’s Ethical Review Committee Inner City Faculties (ERCIC_195_09_06_2020).

Keywords: Behavioral and social aspects of health, public health communication, collective human behavior, human decision science, cognitive psychology, COVID-19

Suggested Citation

Stroom, Martijn and Eichholtz, Piet and Kok, Nils, Avoiding Crowded Places During COVID-19: Simple Choice or Complex Strategic Decision? (April 8, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3822441 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3822441

Martijn Stroom (Contact Author)

Maastricht University, School of Business and Economics ( email )

Netherlands

Piet Eichholtz

Maastricht University ( email )

P.O. Box 616
Maastricht, 6200MD
Netherlands

Nils Kok

University of Maastricht - Limburg Institute of Financial Economics (LIFE) ( email )

P.O. Box 616
Maastricht, 6200 MD
Netherlands

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