COVID-19 leads to a decrease in prosocial behaviour among adolescents I Matthias Sutter


After a coronavirus infection within a family, young people with a socioeconomically weaker background tend to be less cooperative and ready to help than before. This is the result of a new study by the economist Matthias Sutter, researcher of the Cluster of Excellence ECONtribute of the Universities of Bonn and Cologne, and his team. The study was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

If a family member falls ill with COVID-19, this has a particularly negative effect on young people from an economically disadvantaged and less educated background. These adolescents not only fall behind in school, their non-cognitive abilities also suffer: they are less prosocial than before. This means that they behave less generously, altruistically, and cooperatively. Moreover, their willingness to trust others decreases. In addition to declining academic performance, this development can also bring disadvantages for them in the long term.

That is the result of a study conducted by a research team led by the behavioural economist Professor Dr. Matthias Sutter at the Faculty of Management, Economics, and Social Sciences and at the Cluster of Excellence ECONtribute at the University of Cologne. The study was published on 8 November, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Infection within a family widened prosociality gap almost threefold

Originally, the 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, they collected data from 5,000 high school students aged between 15 and 17 from three French regions in the autumn of 2019. Even then, four experiments revealed a gap between adolescents from socioeconomically well situated families on the one side, and disadvantaged ones on the other. Students from less well-off families with a lower level of education behaved less prosocially.

In a second round in the spring of 2020, 363 young persons took part in the same four experiments, significantly fewer than in the previous round, due to the lockdown at the time. The researchers found that 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.

Non-cognitive skills contribute to success in later working life

In the past, several studies have already shown that the pandemic affects people from economically disadvantaged and less educated backgrounds more strongly in the areas of health, labour, and education. Sutter’s team now showed to what extent COVID-19 has a negative impact on prosocial behaviour – with consequences. 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 opportunities of those affected on the labour market,” said Sutter.

The economist also talks about the results of his study in a new episode of the science podcast ‘Exzellent erklärt – Spitzenforschung für alle’ (in German), 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) within the framework of the German Excellence Initiative.

Press & Communication

Lisa Oder
ECONtribute: Markets & Public Policy
Tel. +49 221 470 89965

Carolin Jackermeier
ECONtribute: Markets & Public Policy
Tel. +49 221 470 7258


Media contact

Prof. Dr. Matthias Sutter
ECONtribute: Markets & Public Policy, University of Cologne
Tel. +49 228 914 16 865