Slowing COVID-19 transmission as a social dilemma: Lessons for government officials from interdisciplinary research on cooperation

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Tim Johnson
Christopher T. Dawes
James H. Fowler
Oleg Smirnov


Social dilemma, Cooperation, COVID-19, Free-riding


To reduce transmission of COVID-19, public officials must help their communities resolve a series of novel social dilemmas. For instance, when social distancing becomes widespread, the likelihood of COVID-19 exposure decreases, thus tempting individuals to leave their homes while others stay sheltered. Yet, if all indulge that temptation, then rates of transmission will increase: everyone would have fared better by cooperatively staying at home. Past research has studied such social dilemmas to understand why cooperation occurs despite incentives that conspire against it. In this narrative review, we select relevant insights from this literature to inform COVID-19 response and we structure those insights around the response stages that government officials face. Together, the measures that we identify can ameliorate the social dilemmas born from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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