What is it about?

This study explores the effects of voluntary versus enforced implementation on support for COVID-19 policies. Existing literature suggests that enforcement may increase compliance with public health measures, but may also crowd out people’s motivation to comply voluntarily. I use an online survey of nearly 4800 adults in Germany to gauge popular support for various COVID-19 containment policies, implemented on either a voluntary or enforced basis. At least 25% of respondents exhibited control aversion—lower agreement with measures when enforced versus when strongly advised but voluntary—for all policies. Average agreement with a contact tracing app, vaccination, and limiting contacts with other people was lower if these policies were enforced than if they were voluntary. Agreement with mask wearing and travel limitations was similar whether the policies were enforced or voluntary. Control aversion was associated with distrust of the government and was reduced in respondents who had lived under the communist regime of East Germany. The results suggest that enforcement may be effective for easily-enforced measures with low control aversion and/or requiring a high level of compliance, such as mask wearing, travel limitations, and contact restrictions. For contact tracing apps and vaccination, which are difficult to enforce and evoke sizeable control aversion, enforcement might be counter-productive.

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Why is it important?

This paper makes three contributions. First, it provides insights from Germany on people’s agreement with policy choices that all countries face in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. My findings point to dimensions relevant for policy makers when deciding between voluntary as opposed to enforced measures. These insights include the essential role of trust in government. Second, the paper contributes to the small but important literature on the intersection of policy design, state capacities, and the interplay of obedience and voluntary compliance. Third, my finding that even 30 y after reunification those who have experienced state coercion in East Germany are less control-averse concerning anti–COVID-19 measures than West Germans contributes to the literature on endogenous preferences and comparative cultural studies.


What touched me most when analyzing the data for this paper is that people who experienced the coercive East German regime three and more decades ago are less averse to enforced anti–COVID-19 measures today.

Katrin Schmelz
Universitat Konstanz

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Enforcement may crowd out voluntary support for COVID-19 policies, especially where trust in government is weak and in a liberal society, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2016385118.
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