University of Innsbruck
prosocial behaviour
Prosociality describes the willingness to help other people or to do something good for them – a soft-skill which is especially important for success on the labour market.

Covid-19 impacts prosocial behaviour negatively

Covid-19 has negative effects on people from economically weaker and less educated backgrounds especially when it comes to health, job security and education. However, it is still largely unknown how the pandemic affects social behaviour. Researchers led by Matthias Sutter now show in an article in the journal PNAS that the pandemic negatively affects prosocial behaviour.

An infection with the Corona virus within the family leads to a drastic reduction in prosocial behaviour of students from socioeconomically weaker families. Prosociality describes the willingness to help other people or to do something good for them. This is the finding of a study conducted by behavioural economist Matthias Sutter, who works at the Universities of Innsbruck and Cologne and at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, together with colleagues from the University of Lausanne and the Toulouse School of Economics.

Prosocial behaviour important for success

With their initial study, which began before the Covid-19 pandemic, the researchers actually wanted to investigate friendship networks among students. In this context they were able to collect a data set of 5.000 French high school students in autumn 2019. Sutter and his colleagues then repeated their series of experiments during the pandemic with a smaller number of the same students. In doing so, they were able to find an interesting relationship that was not the primary focus of the main study: "While prosociality was already lower in low social status students before the pandemic, our data show that Covid-19 infections in families widened the prosociality gap between high and low social status participants by almost three times compared to pre-pandemic levels." Sutter sees the relevance of this finding primarily in the fact that prosociality is a crucial factor for a person's success in the labour market. "There is clear evidence of the relationship between prosocial behaviour and success in the labour market from previous behavioural economics studies. The importance of these soft skills ultimately comes from the fact that getting along well is what everyday jobs are all about," Sutter says. While higher mortality rates and more frequent job loss in these social groups have already been confirmed, negative effects on social behaviour resulting from the Corona pandemic are only apparent at second glance. "The presumption is that this development will harm the affected young adults in the long term, resulting in additional disadvantages for them. This is an aspect that has so far received little attention in the public debate," Matthias Sutter points out.

Four experiments to measure prosocial behaviour

In total, the researchers were able to collect data from 5,000 high school students between the ages of 15 and 17 from the three French regions of Nantes, Montpellier and Créteil as part of the first survey in autumn 2019. Contacting the same students proved difficult in the second wave of data collection in May and June 2020 due to lockdowns and associated homeschooling. Finally, 363 students from the first wave participated in the experiments again. To capture prosocial behaviour, the researchers used four different experiments that measured the abilities to trust and cooperate, as well as the degree of altruism and generosity.