Socially Responsible Behaviour Can Slow the Spread of the Coronavirus


The study examines the relationship between social capital and COVID-19 cases in seven European countries.

Regions with a high level of social responsibility are seeing a slower spread of COVID-19 than regions with lower levels of social capital. This relationship between socially responsible behaviour and the spread of the virus was not only observed in Germany, but also in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden. These are the results of a recent study conducted by a team of ZEW economists and researchers from the universities of Mannheim and Bonn.

“Our data clearly show that socially responsible behaviour plays a major role in containing the virus,” says Professor Sebastian Siegloch, head of the ZEW Research Department “Social Policy and Redistribution”. “In light of the current easing of the coronavirus measures, everyone should be well aware of this responsibility.”

As part of the study, the researchers analysed the relationship between social capital – a frequently used measure for social responsibility – and COVID-19 cases in seven European countries, i.e. Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden. 

General documents

Discussion Paper Nr. 20-023

Regions with more social capital could afford to have more relaxed lockdown rules

The study provides important evidence regarding the relationship between individual responsibility and the coronavirus measures adopted by policymakers. The study shows that the relationship between the spread of the virus and social capital becomes weaker for countries that imposed a lockdown. These results have important implications for the current debate on the importance of following regional approaches when it comes to coronavirus policies. “Our findings suggest that regions with a greater sense of social responsibility could afford to have more relaxed restrictions on public life compared to regions with less social capital,” concludes Sebastian Siegloch, author of the study.

In the absence of medical drug treatments or vaccines against COVID-19, social capital comes to play a crucial role. Policymakers have been appealing to citizens’ sense of responsibility and urging them to follow distancing and hygiene rules in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. All these rules cause restrictions and inconvenience for people. Whether or not individuals follow these rules partly depends on their social capital. In social sciences, this is usually measured in terms of voter participation, since individuals tend to participate in elections out of a sense of civic responsibility despite the fact that a single vote does not have a large impact on the election outcome. Regions with low voter participation rates are therefore considered to have less social capital. This relationship has also been observed for alternative measures of social capital like blood or organ donation rates, or volunteer work.  

Regions with more social capital recorded a slower growth in the numbers of COVID-19-related deaths

Using econometric models, the authors of the study investigated the relationship between the amount of social capital on a regional level and the number of COVID-19 cases recorded in all seven European countries. The employed statistical methods allow controlling for alternative regional economic and social explanatory factors like the gross domestic product, population, economic sectors and medical infrastructure.

In addition to comparing COVID-19 cases in seven European countries, the researcher also closely examined the developments in Italy. Firstly, they found that social capital is related to the number of deaths. “Regions with more social capital recorded a slower growth in the numbers of COVID-19-related deaths,” explains Sebastian Siegloch. In addition, the researchers observed that social capital does in fact have an impact on individual behaviour. Using anonymised location data from mobile operators, the study found that Italians living in regions with more social capital significantly reduced their movement compared to those living in regions with less social capital already before the national lockdown was in force.