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Individualism getting in the way of COVID-19 responses: Study

A man wearing a mask on the street.
Posted 2020-10-07
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A new UBC Sauder School of Business study shows that areas with high levels of individualism are less likely to adopt COVID-fighting measures.

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on countries around the world — but not all countries, or even regions within countries, have responded the same way.

In the United States, the nation hit hardest by the pandemic, some areas have widely accepted measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing, while others have vehemently rejected them.

So, what’s the difference? According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, individualism might be playing a big part — and its roots go all the way back to the American frontier. UBC Sauder assistant professor and study co-author Bo Bian talks about the unexpected link between surviving frontier life and today’s COVID-19 behaviours.

Your study is titled Individualism During Crises. What was the inspiration behind it?

We’ve been working with a data set on individualism and the U.S. frontier experience. Then when the virus hit, there was a lot of discussion around culture and people’s value systems, and how that’s reflected in their response to the pandemic. So, we wanted to see if there was scientific evidence of a correlation between the two. 

How did you measure individualism?

We relied on historical measures to capture the variances in individualism across roughly 3,000 U.S. counties, based on their frontier experience more than a century ago. 

People spent years on the frontier fighting against nature and many other disadvantages, and that culture is reflected in the counties’ population. Through selective migration and adaptive advantage, this culture of individuals who had to rely on themselves to survive got transmitted to today’s population.  

What do you mean by selective migration and adaptive advantage? 

People who couldn’t adapt to nature or who weren’t very individualistic, or who didn’t feel comfortable staying and fighting by themselves, moved away. The people who had a higher degree of individualism or who could rely on themselves stayed in the area.

These characteristics got transmitted because the people who were able to survive adapted. So, these specific features were good for survival; that’s why they got transmitted along the way. 

But these people lived more than a century ago. How does that relate to the residents today?

Culture is usually very persistent, and it doesn’t change a lot over time. So even though it’s a historical measure, because it’s slow-moving in nature, that initial condition is very important in determining modern-day culture.  Our study related this measure to modern-day COVID responses.

How did you track people’s behaviours today?

There is very detailed data available through the tracking apps on people’s phones, showing whether people are staying home, or doing things like going to the supermarket or going to the park. Companies like Google are actively collecting that information, and some are making that data available. So, we were looking at a data set provided by Google, and can see the percentage change in people’s activities since pre-COVID levels. 

You also used serious computing power to look at migration patterns.

Yes, we were concerned that the county-level results could be driven by things like different policies, hospital services, news reporting or campaigns. So, we used a very large individual-level proprietary data set to zoom in even further — imagine a quarter of the U.S. population being tracked every five minutes and the number of records that would produce. It was 175 trillion records, and we had 300 terabytes of data. 

First, we compared home addresses in 2019 to home addresses in 2020 to identify who moved to a new city or county. Then we computed the social distancing measures at the individual level and compared them, so we could see whether the distancing depends on culture. 

What did you find?

We found that in counties that have a more individualistic culture, people do less social distancing, and are less likely to decrease their activities. The difference is quite large — between 40 and 50 percent.

So, having quite an individualistic culture is going to reduce compliance with state lockdown policies by around 50 percent compared with counties that have less individualistic cultures. 

We also observed a similar effect in charity redistributions on GoFundMe, which is the largest fundraising platform in the U.S. In areas with high levels of individualism, donations were 48 percent lower.

What do you think is going on?

We know that most of our actions will have an impact on society, but if I have a high level of individualism, I don’t care as much about how my actions are going to generate negative effects for others. So, I might be carrying the virus, but I don’t really factor the negative impact of my behaviour into my decision-making.

But couldn’t this be driven by politics?

We added a control variable called the Trump Vote Share, so the share of the population that voted for Trump in 2016. And we showed that even when we added in this measure, the results stayed the same. So political affiliation can’t explain the strong role that’s played by individualism.

Your study looks at the U.S. specifically. But what would the results be like in Canada?

The U.S. is at the very top of the individualism score, but the UK and Canada are among the top countries too. So, we also see that Canada isn’t doing as much social distancing or mask wearing as countries like China that have low individualism.

What could this mean for policymakers?

You can have different targeting across different areas that will help the government better allocate their resources, and you can have a communications strategy that’s customized to the local culture in high individualism areas. You can also incorporate the data into models that help track the transmission patterns of the virus.

Is there anything that might make these counties become less individualistic?

It’s not something you can change by policy. People have to slowly change over time. The academic literature says that historically, things have sometimes changed because of huge disasters. So ironically, COVID might change local culture, because the counties that have the most individualistic culture might actually realize the value of being less individualistic.

Bo Bian from the UBC Sauder School of Business co-authored Individualism During Crises along with Jingjing Li, Ting Xu, and Natasha Zhang Foutz from the University of Virginia.