Extant research on COVID-19 suggests that many socio-economic determinants, by affecting personal behavior, have influenced the evolution of the pandemic. In this paper we study the role played in this regard by average levels of self-esteem in the public. There are reasons to believe that both low and very levels of self-esteem may have an effect on the spread of COVID-19, for opposite reasons. On the one hand, people with low self-esteem may not worry enough to behave in the way recommended (and prescribed, through non-pharmaceutical interventions) by the authorities; people with very high self-esteem, on the other hand, may be over-confident and fail to follow the prescriptions, believing that they do not need them. In this study we test this hypothesis by means of a quantitative cross-country analysis, using a hybrid model and the Rosenberg self-esteem scale. Our results suggest the existence of a U-shaped relationship between the trend of COVID-19 and average levels of self-esteem in a country.
Self-esteem is a long-standing concept in the field of psychology (Rosenberg et al., 1995). Most of the extant research deals with the concept of global self-esteem, which is typically defined as one's overall sense of worthiness as a person (Baumeister et al., 1993; Branden, 1994; Rosenberg, 1979), or, in more technical language, as the individual's positive or negative attitude toward the self as a totality (Rosenberg et al., 1995).
Self-esteem is associated in the literature with various outcomes, which may be psychological, social and economic. As a consequence, given the vastness of the research on the subject, its definition is operationalized in different ways according to the specific domain it refers to. From the perspective of economics (and, more broadly, of the social sciences), self-esteem is typically considered as confidence in one's skills or abilities (Chatterjee et al., 2008; Drago, 2011; Kőszegi et al., 2022).
While the concept is of course a (very) complex one, and its definition may be given many shades and distinctions, it is also possible to simplify the framework by dichotomizing the determinant of these outcomes with two principal categories: high self-esteem and low self-esteem (Coopersmith, 1959). While high self-esteem is characterized by strong confidence and belief in oneself, and high satisfaction with oneself (Baumeister and Vohs, 2018), low self-esteem is on the contrary characterized by lack of confidence and the tendency to feel badly about oneself (Bajaj et al., 2016).
While the role played by self-esteem in social outcomes has been studied for decades, surprisingly the potential negative effect of high levels of self-esteem within a country has remained a less explored topic. Nonetheless, the spread of the COVID pandemic, and the subsequent implementation of NPIs and lockdowns, has raised serious psychological concerns in the public, thus giving individual psychological traits a more important role, even in a public health context, when it comes to explaining the individual choice of whether or not to comply with anti-COVID regulations.
To summarize our contribution, the present study has found a correlation between international differences in self-esteem among countries and the spread of COVID-19, taking into account the main variables that play a role in this relationship. Potentially, this mechanism has an impact through the public's varying compliance with the NPI policies that are enforced, thus altering their effectiveness. Furthermore, and possibly more importantly, our framework has allowed us to explore the relationship between high levels of self-esteem, or “egotism”, as defined by Baumeister et al., 1993, Baumeister et al., 1996, and the effect this has had on the spread of the pandemic.