Covid policies enforcement may crowd out voluntary support if govt is weak, says study

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Representative image [Credit: Reuters]
Representative image [Credit: Reuters]

California [US], December 22 (ANI): A recent study explores the effects of voluntary versus enforced implementation on support for coronavirus policies.

Titled 'Enforcement may crowd out voluntary support for Covid-19 policies, especially where trust in government is weak and in a liberal society' -- recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) -- the research article makes three contributions.

First, it provides insight from Germany on people's agreement with policy choices that all countries face in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. The research article's author, Katrin Schmelz, states that her findings point to dimensions relevant for policymakers when deciding between voluntary as opposed to enforced measures. These insights include the essential role of trust in government.

Second, the paper contributes to the small but important literature on the intersection of policy design, state capacities, and the interplay of obedience and voluntary compliance. Existing literature suggests that enforcement may increase compliance with public health measures, but may also crowd out people's motivation to comply voluntarily.

Third, Schmelz's finding suggests that even 30 years after reunification those who have experienced state coercion in East Germany are less control-averse concerning anti-Covid-19 measures than West Germans contributes to the literature on endogenous preferences and comparative cultural studies.

Schmelz used an online survey of nearly 4,800 adults in Germany to gauge popular support for various coronavirus containment policies, implemented on either a voluntary or enforced basis. At least 25 percent of respondents exhibited control aversion -- lower agreement with measures when enforced versus when strongly advised but voluntary -- for all policies.

The study indicates that average agreement with a contact tracing app, vaccination, and limiting contacts with other people was lower if these policies were enforced than if they were voluntary. Agreement with mask-wearing and travel limitations were similar whether the policies were enforced or voluntary.

The paper suggests that control aversion was associated with distrust of the government and was reduced in respondents who had lived under the communist regime of East Germany. The results suggest that enforcement may be effective for easily-enforced measures with low control aversion and/or requiring a high level of compliance, such as mask-wearing, travel limitations, and contact restrictions.

For contact tracing apps and vaccination, which are difficult to enforce and evoke sizeable control aversion, enforcement might be counter-productive, according to the author.

To contain the Covid-19 pandemic, a critical decision is the extent to which policymakers rely on voluntary as opposed to enforced compliance, and nations vary along this dimension. While enforcement may secure higher compliance, there is experimental and other evidence that it may also crowd out voluntary motivation.

How does enforcement affect citizens' support for anti-Covid-19 policies? A survey conducted with 4,799 respondents toward the end of the first lockdown in Germany suggests that a substantial share of the population will support measures more under voluntary than under enforced implementation. Negative responses to enforcement -- termed control aversion -- vary across the nature of the policy intervention (e.g., they are rare for masks and frequent for vaccination and a cell-phone tracing app). Control aversion is less common among those with greater trust in the government and the information it provides, and among those who were brought up under the coercive regime of East Germany.

Taking account of the likely effectiveness of enforcement and the extent to which near-universal compliance is crucial, the differing degrees of opposition to enforcement across policies suggest that for some anti-Covid-19 policies an enforced mandate would be unwise, while for others it would be essential. Similar reasoning may also be relevant for policies to address future pandemics and other societal challenges like climate change.

Most anti-Covid-19 policies share the fundamental structure of public goods dilemmas where all-encompassing cooperation maximizes the well-being of all citizens, but since cooperation is costly each individual has an incentive to free-ride on others' cooperation.

On the other hand, enforcement and incentives can reduce intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon termed "motivational crowding out." Evidence was provided by psychologists decades ago under the umbrella of "self-determination theory," distinguishing between autonomous and controlled motivation.

This paper explores the relative importance of these two countervailing effects of enforcement on motivation with respect to measures combating Covid-19 in five domains: contact-tracing apps, vaccination, contact restrictions, limitations on travel, and wearing masks.

The survey was implemented and run by the surveyLab at the University of Konstanz from April 29 to May 8, 2020. The survey was conducted at a time when stay-at-home orders were in place, national borders were closed, the wearing of masks had been compulsory for a few days, vaccine development was in progress, and contact-tracing apps were being discussed. (ANI)