COVID-19 and Pro-Sociality: How do Donors Respond to Local Pandemic Severity, Increased Salience, and Media Coverage?

By Maja Adena and Julian Harke

Photo Credits: WZB

Locally occurring natural catastrophes seem to increase international solidarity. However, the global spread of COVID-19 was unprecedented, meaning that it is not clear what types of behavioral responses it will generate. Anecdotal evidence tells of helpful neighbors who go shopping for the vulnerable, donate food, or sew homemade face coverings for nursing homes. Other individuals have been less benevolent: Some have even gone as far as engaging in racist attacks on members of ethnic groups who have been blamed for spreading the disease. Moreover, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention has shifted away from once-prominent concerns, including the refugee situation and famine in developing countries. To regain attention, many charities started using references to COVID-19 in their solicitations, even when asking for donations for projects that are not directly related to the pandemic.

This leads to the following questions: Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected pro-sociality among individuals? Did donors increase their giving in response to such changes?

In order to answer these questions, BCCP Senior Fellow Maja Adena and BCCP Doctoral Student Julian Harke conducted a real-donation online experiment with more than 4,200 participants from 149 local areas in England over 21 weeks. First, the authors varied the fundraising appeal to either include or exclude a reference to COVID-19. They found that including the reference to COVID-19 in the appeal increased donations by around 8 percent. Second, in a natural experiment-like approach, they studied how the relative local severity of the pandemic and media coverage about local COVID-19 severity affected donations in their experiment.

Their results show that both higher local severity and more related articles increased the giving of participants in the respective areas. An additional 1,000 COVID-19 cases in the local area or additional 10 articles in the national press about local COVID-19 severity resulted in a similar magnitude to the experimental manipulation of the donation appeal. Moreover, despite the shift in public attention toward the domestic fight against the pandemic, the authors find that preferences did not shift toward giving more to a national project and less to developing countries. These results hold for different specifications, including specifications with location fixed effects, time fixed effects, a broad set of individual characteristics to account for a potentially changing composition of the sample over time, and to account for health- and work-related experiences with and expectations regarding the pandemic.

The authors also present correlational evidence of health- and work-related experiences and expectations. They find a clear pattern in making ends meet before and since the COVID-19 pandemic, with those who report less difficulty in making ends meet giving more. For health and income changes the authors find an inverted U-shaped pattern. First, those whose health was either strongly affected or not affected gave less than those whose health was somewhat affected. Second, those who experienced either a positive or a negative income change gave less than those who did not experience such a change. This also holds for expected health changes as well as expected income changes in the future. While negative experiences with COVID-19 correlate negatively with giving, both approaches led the authors to conclude that the pure effect of the increased salience of the pandemic on pro-sociality is positive.

This has implications for pro-sociality when facing global crises. Despite being affected themselves or even because of being affected, individuals are more benevolent with others. In times when humanity faces global problems, like climate change, an increasing likelihood of further pandemics (Dobson et al., 2020), and other potential crises, the behavioral responses of individuals have important implications for tackling these problems and gaining support for certain policies with pro-social elements.

The full paper “COVID-19 and Pro-Sociality: How do Donors Respond to Local Pandemic Severity, Increased Salience, and Media Coverage?” is available as WZB Discussion Paper SP II 2021 - 304.

This text is jointly published by BCCP News and BSE Insights.