Modelling pandemic behaviour using an economic multiplayer game

Simon T. van Baal, Lukasz Walasek, Jakob Hohwy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


During a pandemic, isolating oneself from the community limits viral transmission and helps avoid repeated societal lockdowns. This entails a social dilemma—either distance oneself from others for the benefit of the public good or free-ride and enjoy the benefits of freedom. It is not yet understood how the unfamiliar incentive structure and interpersonal context presented by a pandemic together modulate individuals’ approach to this social dilemma. In this preregistered study, we take a game-theoretical approach and investigate people’s decisions to self-isolate, using a novel iterated multiplayer game designed to capture the decision-making environment in the pandemic. To elucidate players’ thinking, we use a variation of the strategy method and elicit beliefs about how much others will self-isolate. Players tend to respond to social norms with abidance, rather than transgression; they resist the temptation to freeride when others are self-isolating. However, they deal with exponential growth poorly, as they only self-isolate sufficiently when lockdowns are imminent. Further, increased collective risk can motivate more self-isolation, even though the link between self-isolation and lockdowns is stochastic. Players underreport the influence of others’ choices on their own, and underestimate others’ self-isolation. We discuss implications for public health, and communication to the public.

Original languageEnglish
Article number13466
Number of pages14
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

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