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COVID-19 worsens prosocial behaviour among young people from poorer backgrounds

Economic study by WiSo-Professor Matthias Sutter.

a teenager seen behind his hand which stretched out to the camera

If a family member falls ill with the Coronavirus, this has a particularly negative effect on adolescents from economically weaker and less educated classes. The adolescents not only fall behind in school, their non-cognitive abilities also suffer. They are less prosocial than before. This means: they behave less generously, altruistically and cooperatively. In addition, their willingness to trust others decreases. In addition to declining academic performance, this development can also bring disadvantages for them in the long term. This is shown by the results of a research team led by the behavioural economist Professor Dr Matthias Sutter from the WiSo-Faculty of the University of Cologne. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The original aim of the scientists was to find out to what extent the prosocial behaviour of young people differs according to socio-economic status. To this end, the team collected data from 5,000 high school students aged between 15 and 17 from three French regions in autumn 2019. Already then, four experiments showed a gap between adolescents from socioeconomically better and worse off families. Students from less well-off families with a lower level of education behaved less prosocially.

In the second round in spring 2020, 363 young people took part in the same four experiments, significantly fewer than in the previous round, due to the lockdown that prevailed at the time. The researchers found: an infection within one's own family more than doubled the gap between the different population strata. While the behaviour of young people with a high social status hardly changed in this case, those with a low social status behaved significantly less prosocially.

Several studies have already shown in the past how the pandemic hits people from economically weaker and less educated classes harder in the areas of health, the labour market and education. Sutter's team now shows to what extent COVID-19 has a negative impact on prosocial behaviour - with consequences. For economists agree that non-cognitive skills such as prosociality contribute significantly to success in later working life. "In the long term, this development could have a negative impact on the labour market opportunities of those affected," says Sutter.

Among  other things, Professor Sutter works at the Cluster of Excellence ECONtribute: Markets & Public Policy of the Universities of Bonn and Cologne at the University of Cologne, the only Cluster of Excellence in Germany with Focus on Economics. The economist also talks about the results of his study in a new episode of the science podcast "Exzellent erklärt - Spitzenforschung für alle", which will be released on 1 December. In each episode, the podcast provides insights into one of the 57 research networks funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).