Tragedy of the Commons: The potential role of individualism in the spread of Covid-19

By Dr Yossi Maaravi, Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at IDC, Herzliya

Red street sign that says "Covid-19: stay 2 meters apart" on an empty high street.
John David Photography /

Dr Yossi Maaravi of the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at IDC, Herzliya asks whether the phenomenon of social dilemmas and individualism resulted in worse outcomes for the Covid-19 pandemic?  

Covid-19 is a real tragedy. But why did this tragedy hit some countries harder than others? While this question has recently been answered based on population age or health policy, a few months ago, my thoughts drifted to another possible explanation: ‘The tragedy of the commons’. A few months later, these thoughts led to research that has been recently published in Frontiers in Public Health. But the story of the inspiration for this research begins many years back.

16 years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I came across Garrett Hardin’s classic article, The Tragedy of the Commons. I was fascinated by the simple yet powerful phenomenon of social dilemmas described in this article.

Social dilemmas are circumstances in which certain behaviors that serve the self-interest of every individual member of society might be harmful to the common good.

A need to educate

Pollution, the extinction of various flora and fauna, traffic jams, and water shortages are all examples of such circumstances. Examples relating to our day-to-day lives include overuse of water or electricity, picking wildflowers, littering, and not returning a book to the library.

Back then, I thought this lesson was so important that children should learn about it in elementary school and not wait for their academic studies. To do something about it, I decided to write a children’s picture book that tells a story of a social dilemma. I did just that, and my book The Juice Tree has sold almost 90,000 copies in Israel and South Korea since it was published in 2010.

A year ago, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic and announced a global emergency, I thought about Hardin’s article, social dilemmas, and my book once again. Governments and health authorities globally have issued various guidelines to fight the pandemic and avoid catastrophic consequences.

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Some of the most common measures include reducing human contact through quarantine, isolation, and social distancing and preventing infection through wearing masks, washing hands, and sterilizing surfaces.

In some countries – such as Taiwan or Singapore – citizens have followed these instructions, and consequently, the spread and negative effect of the pandemic were limited. However, other countries faced a catastrophe.

Indeed, in countries such as the USA, UK, or Belgium, the number of cases and deaths kept increasing, and governments and health authorities were puzzled by this difference.

‘The more individualistic participants were, the higher the chances they would not adhere to epidemic prevention measures’

Dr Yossi Maaravi

My colleague Aharon Levy, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and I, suspected that this difference between countries might stem from their cultural values of individualism and collectivism. We hypothesized that ‘the tragedy of the commons’ will be more tragic in individualistic countries, where people focus more on their own interests than on the common good.  

Together with our research team – Tamar Gur (Department of Psychology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Dan Confino (Département de Psychologie, Université de Genève), and Sandra Segal (The Adelson School of Entrepreneurship, Herzliya) – we designed 3 studies to investigate this research question.

The greater good?

In the first study, we analyzed data collected across 69 countries and examined the relationship between Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension of individualism-collectivism and the impact of Covid-19 in terms of both cases and deaths.

In the second and third studies, we aimed to explore the mechanism further and focused on the individual level – examining how people’s values of individualism versus collectivism were related to their attitudes, behavior, and decision-making regarding the Covid-19 guidelines and restrictions. As expected, we found that the more individualistic (versus collectivistic) a country was, the more Covid-19 cases and mortalities it had.

We also found that the more individualistic participants were, the higher the chances they would not adhere to epidemic prevention measures.

We believe that our findings are important in understanding the pandemic’s spread, devising optimal exit strategies from lockdowns, and persuading the population to get the new vaccines against the virus.

Dr Yossi Maaravi is the vice dean of the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at IDC, Herzliya. He obtained his BA (magna cum laude) from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied psychology and was part of the Amirim interdisciplinary honors program. He completed his PhD in business administration in the direct program for excellent PhD students at Tel Aviv University.

Maaravi’s research focuses on behavioral decision-making, negotiation, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Alongside academic research and publishing, he is also the author of two children’s books and a book on negotiation.

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