News Release

Study examines how governments inform public about pandemics

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Texas at Dallas

Dr. Shouqiang Wang

image: Dr. Shouqiang Wang is an associate professor of operations management in the Naveen Jindal School of Management at UT Dallas. view more 

Credit: UT Dallas

Governments that prioritize the economy over public health are more likely to downplay, rather than exaggerate, the severity of a pandemic, and vice versa, according to a recent study from The University of Texas at Dallas.

Dr. Shouqiang Wang, associate professor of operations management in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, and fellow co-authors — Dr. Francis de Véricourt, professor of management science and director of the Center for Decisions, Models and Data at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Berlin; and Dr. Huseyin Gurkan, assistant professor of management science at ESMT — used a game-theory model to study how a theoretical information provider can influence individual behavior through the way information is presented.

Their findings suggest ways that policymakers might efficiently inform the public about the dangers of an epidemic.

The study, published online Aug. 12 and in the October print issue of the INFORMS journal Management Science, uncovers important mechanisms to consider when attempting to induce individual compliance with public-health measures.

“The dramatic and tragic events that we have experienced since the outbreak of COVID-19 vividly demonstrate how a public-health crisis became entangled with a public communication crisis,” Wang said. “The public has not necessarily been kept informed in a timely and truthful manner. Many governments around the world did not shy away from keeping information hidden from the public, manipulating and intentionally misinterpreting the data, and questioning the correctness of the official numbers. In hindsight, the still-rampaging COVID-19 crisis has been plagued with anecdotes of misinformation.”

Across the globe, Wang said, political and health leaders have knowingly delayed sharing key information, fostered misinformation, downplayed the situation in their own countries or exaggerated certain aspects of the virus’s impact.

The most unexpected finding of the study was that the greater the socioeconomic disparity of a population, the more likely its government is to misrepresent data to downplay the gravity of the epidemic.

The study is a sequel to an article, published in Management Science last year and written before the COVID-19 outbreak, in which Wang and the co-authors examined the informational role of public agencies and how such agencies design warning policies to mitigate potential disasters that may occur repeatedly over time.

Communication Challenges

In the new study, the researchers identified three challenges governments face as they choose the best message to send to the public.

“First, individuals in a society face their own cost-benefit trade-offs when it comes to compliance,” Wang said. “For example, when a government issues lockdown guidelines, people who can conduct their work from home will bear almost a negligible cost to follow the guidelines, while people whose work requires face-to-face interactions will find it difficult to comply as it might come with a significant loss of earnings.”

Second, such differences in public responses to a pandemic create an externality, Wang said. More people wearing masks, getting vaccinated and practicing social distancing might inadvertently reduce an individual’s own incentive to do so because they can get a “free ride” on others’ compliance.

“Third, a government with its own political agenda also faces similar trade-offs between public health and the overall economy. Its leaders would like to achieve maximum public compliance while maintaining a high level of economic activities,” Wang said.

The researchers developed a game-theory model that accounted for these challenges and used an information design framework to analyze how an information provider can influence individual behavior.

The researchers used a theoretical analysis rather than an empirical approach because the information policies of existing governments are confounded with many other factors that are impossible to isolate, Wang said.

Downplaying and Exaggerating

The researchers found that their simulated governments are more likely to downplay the severity of an epidemic if they prefer to prioritize a healthy economy over a healthy population. By downplaying, a government induces the population to be less fearful of the pandemic and to engage more in economic activities, Wang said.

The opposite holds true for governments that prioritize public health over the economy, as they are more likely to exaggerate the severity of the disease.

The study also suggests that governments should have fully transparent information policies if they value the economy and public health equally. In this scenario, governments should release their intelligence about the pandemic in an accurate and timely manner.

“In fact, we found that only for governments with an extremely polarized objective — either toward public health or toward the economy — was information distorted,” Wang said. “Otherwise, full transparency is the best strategy.”

How the Theories Play Out

The findings are consistent with and provide a rational explanation for some of the anecdotal events observed during the COVID-19 outbreak, Wang said.

News reports from the past 18 months or so have analyzed information policies and responses from various countries around the world.

For example, some reported that mixed messages from politicians in China, Italy, the U.S. and other countries led to a late start for containing the outbreak. Wang pointed out that large countries like the U.S. and China have more heterogenous socioeconomic populations.

On the other hand, media reports have noted that leaders in Germany and South Korea confronted the outbreak from the start with transparency and had fewer deaths. Wang said relatively speaking, smaller countries like Germany and South Korea have more homogenous populations.

The study also has implications for the public.

“People should be cautious in interpreting a government’s messages, especially when there is an apparent downplay or exaggeration about the epidemic situation,” Wang said. “The health and wealth of a country are not substitutes for each other; we do not need to necessarily sacrifice one for the other.”


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