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Abstract

While individualism is often connected with innovation and economic growth, it may also hamper collective actions. In the context of COVID-19 which engenders negative externalities on population movement and interaction, this paper examines whether and how individualism vs. collectivism influences public response to social distancing regulations. With country- and countyday-level data of population movement, COVID-19 cases, and government policy stringency, I find that people in more individualistic countries showed less compliance with social distancing regulations, even after accounting for potential confounding demographic, political, and socioeconomic factors. However, the relation was reversed across counties in the U.S. I explain the heterogeneity as related to the propensity to comply—a main property of collectivism. Under the hypothesis, collectivism leads to more compliance with social distancing regulations only when the public perceives the pandemic as a serious threat. Furthermore, I find a positive relation between collectivism and compliance in U.S. Democrat-controlled states but find the opposite in Republican-controlled states. I argue in favor of the compliance hypothesis which may be explained by Republican state government’s underestimation of the severity of COVID-19.

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