by Alessandro Romano in collaboration with Yale University and London School of Economics
Due to network effects, Contact Tracing Apps (CTAs) are only effective if many people download them. However, the response to CTAs has been tepid. For example, in France less than 2 million people (roughly 3% of the population) downloaded the CTA. Against this background, we carry out an online experiment to show that CTAs can still play a key role in containing the spread of COVID-19, provided that they are re-conceptualized to account for insights from behavioral science.
We start by showing that carefully devised in-app notifications are effective in inducing prudent behavior like wearing a mask or staying home. In particular, people that are notified that they are taking too much risk and could become a superspreader engage in more prudent behavior. Building on this result, we suggest that CTAs should be re-framed as Behavioral Feedback Apps (BFAs). The main function of BFAs would be providing users with information on how to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19, like how crowded a store is likely to be. Moreover, the BFA could have a rating system that allows users to flag stores that do not respect safety norms like wearing masks. These functions can inform the behavior of app users, thus playing a key role in containing the spread of the virus even if a small percentage of people download the BFA. While effective contact tracing is impossible when only 3% of the population downloads the app, less risk taking by small portions of the population can produce large benefits. BFAs can be programmed so that users can also activate a tracing function akin to the one currently carried out by CTAs. Making contact tracing an ancillary, opt-in function might facilitate a wider acceptance of BFAs.