At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, both the federal government and local governments across the U.S. recommended that Americans engage in social distancing and other prosocial health behaviors (e.g. wearing a mask in public). While social scientists know a fair amount about compliance with these recommendations, we know less about why some people may have been more likely to comply than others. Building on insights from Human Values Theory, we argue that people who are more self-transcendent (i.e. more likely to put others’ needs before their own) are more likely to engage in a variety of prosocial health behaviors (PSHB). In a demographically representative survey (N = 1,015) conducted at the pandemic’s outset, we find that self-transcendent people were significantly more likely to engage in PSHB; irrespective of partisanship and local COVID-19 transmission rates. Recognizing the limitations of self-reported data, we validate these findings by merging international and interstate phone-tracking data into opinion surveys. We find that, on average, people in both countries and states that place a higher emphasis on self-transcendence values were more likely to engage in social distancing. Our work suggests that while prosocial health recommendations are politically contentious, variation in compliance transcends conventional partisan disagreements.
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- Health behavior
- human values
- political psychology
- public opinion