Covid-19 social distancing as a social dilemma

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While the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons are our Intro Psych go-to social dilemmas, Covid-19 has us all mixing in a soup of social dilemmas. Stewing, even. At root, social dilemmas are about weighing our own self-interest against the good of the group.

Zhijun Wu (Wu, 2021) suggests we look at social distancing as a social dilemma played between individuals and the population at large. To keep things simple, Wu suggests that there are two kinds of activities: (1) staying home (and going out only for essential errands, like getting groceries) and (2) having a free-for-all social life (including going to a workplace or school, restaurants, and bars). Now, which should we do? That depends on the risk. If most everyone is out and about, then if we go out and about, our chances of contracting Covid are higher. In that case, staying home would be the safer bet. Restaurants are packed; let’s order a pizza. However, if most everyone else is staying home, then being out and about would be less risky. Restaurants are empty; let’s go to Chachi’s for dinner.

Of course, everyone else is making these same calculations. Restaurants are empty, let’s go! And now restaurants are packed. Restaurants are packed, let’s stay home! And now restaurants are empty. Repeat. In Wu’s mathematical model, everyone’s best option is to split our time. Sometimes we eat in, and sometimes we eat out. If everyone made that same decision, we would balance out our risk. For example, at any give time then, restaurants would be half full.

Wu’s model takes many more events into consideration and assigns a value to each depending on the amount of social contact. For example, the amount of contact you have with others at a grocery store may be minimal, but the amount of contact in a dance club would be much higher. To make things more complicated, we can think about subpopulations. People who live in one neighborhood would frequent a particular grocery store. If the grocery store borders two neighborhoods, then two subpopulations would mix at that grocery store. However, there is a bar at the distant end of the first neighborhood that those in the second neighborhood rarely go to. To illustrate how complicated things can get, Wu identified in Ames, Iowa, six subpopulations and 85 activities, where each activity has its own social contact value.

I’ll add that when making decisions about whether we are going to go someplace, we also take into consideration our own vaccination status, our own underlying health conditions, the vaccinations status and health conditions of others we live with or are in close contact with, the number of people testing positive in our area, and our own risk tolerance.

What used to be a set of simple decisions (e.g., “Let’s go out to dinner,” “Let’s get coffee,”) now requires complex calculations best handled by a computer model to spit out the best decision. No wonder so many of us feel exhausted much more than we did before 2020.

And we haven’t talked about the social dilemmas presented by mask-wearing and vaccines.



Wu, Z. (2021). Social distancing is a social dilemma game played by every individual against his/her population. PLOS ONE, 16(8), e0255543.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.