Tag: COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated vast inequalities in the U.S. Lower-income families experienced greater health risks, more job loss and economic insecurity, and greater declines in psychological well-being—the effects of which will be felt for years to come.

For many Americans, the pandemic represented the first time they had been confronted with these stark inequalities. Indeed, for the first time, many were stripped of their own individual choice and sense of control. New research from Olin Business School suggests that this experience may have led some to better understand the structural sources of inequality and, in turn, support efforts to create a more equal society.


“In the U.S., people tend to think about wealth and inequality as a result of individual differences such as merit or hard work. We were interested in uncovering whether gaining firsthand experience with an external and uncontrollable factor—the COVID-19 pandemic—could shift Americans’ attitudes. We wanted to know: Would people see inequality as more due to structural factors?” said Hannah J. Birnbaum, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin.

In the study “Personal harm from the COVID-19 pandemic predicts advocacy for equality,” forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Birnbaum and colleagues found evidence that individuals who experienced personal harm—either by contracting COVID-19, losing a job or experiencing psychological distress—were more likely to support and advocate for equality up to a full year after the experience.

Birnbaum’s coauthors include Rebecca M. Carey of Princeton University; Andrea G. Dittmann of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School; Hazel Rose Markus and Ellen C. Reinhart of Stanford University; and Nicole M. Stephens of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

New, firsthand experience key to change

The findings were collected from a three-wave longitudinal survey beginning in May 2020. Follow-up surveys were administered in October 2020 and May 2021. The three surveys were part of a larger study of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over time. Nearly 700 U.S. adults completed all three surveys.

‘Our research suggests that perhaps the same people who were touched by the sometimes devastating effects of the pandemic will also be the ones who will advocate for greater equality in the United States.’

Hannah J. Birnbaum

The findings showed that those who had been personally harmed at the start of the pandemic were more likely to appreciate how structural factors outside of individuals’ control—i.e., bad luck and discrimination—contribute to inequality. This more structural understanding of inequality also led these individuals to be more likely to advocate for equality one year later. For example, they were more likely to support redistribution policies such as universal health care as well as to engage in behaviors such as contacting a public official to express support for reducing inequality.

Merely observing the pandemic from afar did not have the same impact. In the study, nearly 30% of respondents at the start of the pandemic did not report any type of personal harm. One year later, they also did not report an increase in advocacy for equality.  

“This discovery was important because it explains why other large-scale negative events—like natural disasters—may not influence people’s attitudes or produce broad cultural change if they feel personally unaffected by them,” Birnbaum said.

Birnbaum and her colleagues said the results help reconcile previous disparate findings on whether those who experience adversity will be more or less likely to advocate for greater equality.

“On the one hand, previous research suggests that lower-power groups should be more likely to advocate for inequality than higher-power groups because they are exposed to more chronic harm and therefore are especially likely to endorse external attributions,” the authors write. “On the other hand, previous research has also found that lower- (vs. higher-) power groups are often motivated to justify and maintain the current system (e.g., to reduce uncertainty and threat), rather than advocating for greater equality.”

“Our research shows that when people experienced a new physical, economic or social harm brought on by the pandemic firsthand, they no longer tried to justify the experience as fair and legitimate,” Birnbaum said. “Unlike longterm situations like poverty or discrimination, it was harder for people to blame harm caused by the pandemic on personal choices.”

The research also shows that personal harm affects people’s attitudes and behavior long after the initial experience. This means that the experiences of harm during the pandemic may have long-lasting impacts on people’s attitudes toward inequality.

“Just like the Great Depression defined our grandparents’ generation, the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on ours,” Birnbaum said.

“For those who hope to increase equality in the United States, our research suggests there may be a possible silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research suggests that perhaps the same people who were touched by the sometimes devastating effects of the pandemic will also be the ones who will advocate for greater equality in the United States.”

artwork of man with laptop, a ufo, and shadowy figures with a vaccination shot

Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 pose a public health risk. They trigger suspicion about scientific recommendations, hurt response efforts to the pandemic and even have led to the burning of 5G cellphone towers.

Benjamin Dow

“Because of their powerful influence in shaping both our narratives about and responses to the pandemic, these conspiracy beliefs receive a great deal of public attention,” said Olin’s Benjamin Dow, a postdoctoral research scholar in organizational behavior.

In a recent study, a review of literature about COVID and the internet, Dow and his coauthors found that the pandemic intensified the spread of conspiracy theories. As COVID disrupted social structures, people turned to the online world, and that led to “increasing contagion,” he said.

They specifically studied social media during the pandemic. “I thought, surely there’s something interesting going on here that could be better understood,” Dow said.

Their study revealed this: “Social media radicalizes beliefs.” Then, “as conspiracy theories are reinforced in online communities, social norms develop, translating conspiracy beliefs into real-world action,” he said. Such actions might include rejecting wearing face masks or flouting rules about social distancing.

When the real-world actions are posted back on social media, they’re further reinforced and amplified, and the cycle continues, Dow writes in “The COVID-19 pandemic and the search for structure: Social media and conspiracy theories,” published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

“The attention can drive perceptions that conspiracy beliefs are less fringe and more popular, potentially normalizing such beliefs for the mainstream.”

‘Sudden lack of control and increased uncertainty’

In general, the pandemic increased social media usage. General internet activity rose 25% in the days after lockdown, the authors note.

Specifically, in 2020, global social media use accelerated by 13%, with 330 million new users, resulting in a total of 4.7 billion total users in April 2021.

“We argue that part of the reason people consumed more social media was because of pandemic-related disruptions to their cognitive and social structures. Although this may not have been the only reason for the increase, it is a significant contributing factor.”

In the context of the pandemic, “the sudden lack of control and increased uncertainty may have made people particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories as a form of alternative structure,” Dow said.

Because social media played a central role in the spread and endurance of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, the question is how to interrupt the cycle. The authors assert “there are several proven options” for reducing the negative influence of online conspiracy theories:

  • Content restriction (preventing exposure to and breaking up echo chambers);
  • pre-bunking (attempting to inoculate people before they are exposed);
  • critical consumption (encouraging cognitive engagement during exposure);
  • and, if all else fails, debunking (trying to alter conspiracy beliefs already held and address the problematic downstream attitudes and behavior directly).

Another option is to encourage breaking down group demarcations and to encourage social connections that were lost or weakened in the pandemic.

“One of the things that was surprising to me that I took away was how much the social side matters,” Dow said.

“So how do we reconnect people with friends and family and more diverse groups of people with different kinds of opinions so that their self-worth and identity isn’t tied up in being a permanent believer in a conspiracy theory?”

Many employers have already begun transitioning employees back to the office, while others plan to resume in-office work in the coming months. But after more than a year of working from home, is returning to business as usual even possible? Or desirable?

Employees have changed amid this pandemic. The more a company can match employee preferences and the optimal work conditions required for a given role, the better off they’ll be in terms of hiring and employee retention, according to Peter Boumgarden, an organizational behavior expert at Washington University in St. Louis.


“Working from home has a level of flexibility that is hard to match in a traditional environment,” said Boumgarden, the Koch Professor of Practice for Family Enterprise at Olin Business School. “Research by Nicholas Bloom and colleagues suggests that employees value this benefit, even seeing it as equivalent to the value they would get from a non-significant pay raise.”

And it’s not just flexibility that employees want.

“We know that autonomy — especially perceived autonomy — is a huge driver of employee satisfaction,” said Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School. “Just having the sense that you have control of your schedule and when to do certain tasks can boost motivation.”

Of course, there are benefits to working in the traditional office setting for individuals and teams. Interdependent work that requires coordination and input from multiple people is easier to accomplish in person. So are nonlinear tasks like brainstorming. Being co-located also helps employees feel connected to the team and provides networking opportunities that can help them advance their careers. This kind of rich social connection can be hard to mimic online, Boumgarden said.

Despite some of the benefits, some employers are seeking a return to more traditional working conditions.

“In my view, the return to office is driven by some mix of companies trying to recapture some of those lost elements, the desire to use expensive office real-estate set up for this strategy and, perhaps, because the old world still feels a bit more familiar,” he said. 

No one-size-fits-all approach

The question should not be whether to return to the office, continue working remotely or some hybrid option, but rather: What is the nature of the employee’s work? That’s what should drive return-to-work plans, Baer said.


For individual contributors, going into the physical office is less essential. In fact, many people have found over the past year and a half that they are more productive working at home without the typical office disruptions.

However, co-location becomes increasingly important as work becomes more interdependent and complex — especially when frequent communication is required, Baer said. Collaborative tasks such as ideating or coordinating projects are accomplished more efficiently in person.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean employees need to be in the office full time. For many teams, the ideal arrangement will change week to week based on current work needs, Baer said.

“There’s some research that shows that teams do really well when they have bursts of activity. I could envision teams coming together for a week or a block of intense activity to solve a problem and then disband when the problem is solved and it’s clear who is going to do what. Once those tasks are complete, the team can reconvene,” Baer said.

Hybrid challenges

From a productivity standpoint, a well-planned hybrid arrangement offers the best of both worlds: time in the office to plan and coordinate work, and uninterrupted time at home to complete tasks. Hybrid arrangements also enable employees to retain an office footprint while keeping some of the flexibility they’ve enjoyed over the past year and a half. For these reasons, Boumgarden believes hybrid work will be the future for many organizations. However, the challenges of hybrid work are significant, perhaps even more so than traditional in-person offices and fully remote work environments, he said.

“There’s some research that shows that teams do really well when they have bursts of activity. I could envision teams coming together for a week or a block of intense activity to solve a problem and then disband when the problem is solved.”

Markus Baer

“Very few of our offices are technologically or socially set up for a world where half of the workers are in the office and half are working from home,” Boumgarden said. “Managers needs to be thinking very hard about workflows required to drive efficiency and innovation in this new set-up. Overcoming these challenges will require investment of time and capital on the part of leaders.”

There are also employee management issues to overcome in a hybrid model. For example, if one person decides to work from home more frequently and another stays in the office, will they be seen equally by their superiors?

“I would argue that true clarity of expectations is critical. Workers should know both what the stated expectation is, but also what is the implicit norm,” Boumgarden said.

Lessons learned

For those who plan to return to a traditional office work arrangement, there are still lessons to be learned from the great work-from-home experiment. For starters, leaders need to revisit how frequently they schedule meetings, Baer said.

“When people are co-located, it’s easy to call a meeting to discuss something, but oftentimes these meetings are unproductive and nothing is really accomplished that couldn’t have been done in a simple email exchange,” Baer said.

The same communication tools that kept teams running while working remotely — such as Microsoft Teams, Skype or Slack — can still be used to inform employees or collect information without forcing them to sit through yet another meeting.  

Boumgarden hopes the experience of managing remotely will ultimately change how leaders do their jobs when they’re back in the office.

“For managers, I hope there are lessons learned about how one manages toward outcome versus micromanaging process alone,” he said. “Let’s start by acknowledging true contribution cannot be linked to minute and hours alone. For example, I might have an exceptionally productive hour that is equivalent to my typical four hours of output. The next day, I might have four hours of time that distill down to less than an hour of true ‘productivity.’ Or what about the breakthrough that occurs on a run or while lying awake at night? How should this be managed? Does it count as work time? These are the questions our next generation leaders should be asking.

“All this said, as soon as we realize that contribution does not neatly map onto time blocks, our way of assessing work should evolve,” Boumgarden continued. “I hope managers start to think about how they might creatively evaluate progress toward goals, while at the same time realizing that people work in different ways to reach this value.

“By not being able to micromanage over the last year-plus, I think many people had a realization that their actual management was much more superficial than truly additive of value,” he added.  

But perhaps the most important lesson we all learned over the past year and a half is the importance of remaining flexible.

“I think there is value in saying new models are still experiments. A company might roll out one approach to hybrid for some time and then adjust back as the data gives insight around what is and is not working,” Boumgarden said.

On May 13, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances.

The announcement came as a surprise to many, including business owners who suddenly had to reevaluate their mask requirements and how these changes might impact their employees and businesses.

In a November 2020 studyRaphael Thomadsen, professor of marketing, and Song Yao, associate professor of marketing, both at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, found mask mandates boosted consumer sales by 5% on average. But that was before COVID-19 vaccines were readily available.

Below, Thomadsen and Yao share their perspectives on how the new CDC guidelines might impact businesses.

How might the new CDC guidelines impact retail, restaurant, travel and leisure business? 

“I think it is too early to tell what the impact of this will be,” Thomadsen said. “My sense is the business effect does not come directly from the rules, but on whether people feel safer with these recommendations.


“Travel and restaurants were already beginning to pick up beforehand. That said, I suspect that there is a segment of the population that will be assured by the CDC recommendations and will start going out. In that sense, I think that the recommendations will probably help the restaurant and bar category in particular, where wearing a mask might not be feasible.

“For everything else, it is harder to know at this time since there is evidence that masks helped people be confident that they are safe while shopping. On the other hand, those studies are from before the time of vaccines, so there is good reason to think that the masks may not make as many people feel safe as before.”

“I also think it may take a while to tell the impact of the new guidelines. But my reasoning is that many local governments and business are hesitant to relax the mask requirement yet,” Yao said. “Talking with some colleagues and friends, I also notice that many people say they will still wear masks, and some even said they would reduce their visits to groceries if those stores start to relax right away.

“In a couple of weeks, if the case number remains low, local governments, business and, more importantly, customers may become more confident going out shopping.

“In short, the guidelines probably do little to boost the business. Rebuilding confidence is more crucial, which requires more vaccinations and reduction in case numbers.”

Are businesses caught between a rock and a hard place if they do or don’t continue to require masks?

“I think this depends a lot on where the business is located,” Thomadsen said. “In St. Louis, I have observed most people still wearing masks at supermarkets or other stores, and even some stores still requiring masks. I suspect that these businesses are OK requiring the masks — the number of people who are truly anti-mask, to the point of not accommodating polite requests, in the country is relatively small. If there is another surge, I think that those businesses can go back to requiring masks.

“That said, I do think there are some areas in our country where there is stronger pushback. This probably affects the Walmarts and more corporate businesses more than the small local businesses, who probably already ignored the mask mandates if their customer base strongly opposed them.”

What do businesses need most right now? 


“Beyond the multiple rounds of stimulus checks, I feel the government still needs to figure out some innovative approaches to boost vaccination rates,” Yao said. “While the vaccination passport idea may be infeasible, some financial incentives for vaccination may not be a bad idea. Ultimately, this would be good for public health and businesses alike.”

 “From my perspective, the largest issue currently impacting businesses is that many supply chains are not running at full capacity,” Thomadsen said. “It is hard to get supply chains to get synchronized, so I think that is to be expected as the economy gets back to full strength.”

Added Yao: “As Raphael pointed out, it may worthwhile to figure out the weak links in the supply chain and spend some money to fix those first.”

Less than half of the population is fully vaccinated, and children 11 and under are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine. Was this move too soon?

“This is a hard question. I would have preferred that we use vaccine passports rather than this type of guidance,” Thomadsen said. “However, such a system is costly and perhaps politically fraught. I also do not think that this policy incentivizes people to get vaccinated, so from that point of view, the decision was not a great one.”

“On the other hand, you cannot keep things closed forever, and cases have already fallen a lot. Most people who want to be vaccinated have gotten vaccinated, except for children, so it is not clear how beneficial waiting would be. 

“Most importantly, though, the declines we see likely reflect not just the vaccinations, but the fact that people who had COVID previously are less likely to get COVID again. The best estimates are that half of the people in the US had COVID, where only about 20% of these cases were diagnosed. If we take early estimates the we need 70% community immunity to contain the spread of COVID, we are there when we add the vaccinations and the cases together (even accounting for overlap). I am not saying that people who had COVID shouldn’t be vaccinated – there are many cases of people getting COVID twice. However, as long as people who had COVID are less likely to get it again, what we are seeing now is that, as a community, this reduced susceptibility is likely enough.

“I expect we will know whether this decision was a good one in about two weeks. If cases continue to plummet even after two weeks then it was the right call. If cases plateau again – or – even rise, then it was too early.”

President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic will be an immediate priority for his administration. He recently announced a coronavirus advisory board of infectious disease researchers and former public health advisers along with an updated strategy that will include increases in testing and contact tracing, as well as transparent communication.

But Inauguration Day is still a month away. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is likely to increase to 20 million by the end of January, nearly doubling the levels around the time of his election, an Olin COVID-19 forecasting model predicts.

The model, which accurately forecasted the rate of COVID-19 growth over the summer of 2020, was developed by Olin’s  Meng LiuRaphael Thomadsen and Song Yao. Their paper—presenting the model and its forecasts—was published November 23 by Scientific Reports.

“One of the key reasons for the increased accuracy of this model over other COVID-19 forecasts is that this model accounts for the fact that people live in interconnected social networks rather than interacting mostly with random groups of strangers,” said Thomadsen, professor of marketing. “This allows the model to forecast that growth will not continue at exponential rates for long periods of time, as classic COVID-19 forecasts predict.”

The evolution of COVID-19 depends on how much we, as a country, continue to social distance or return back to normal levels of interaction. This chart shows forecasted cases in the U.S. through the end of January 2021 based on our current social distancing levels, as well as less and more social distancing.

An interactive online version of the model also allows users to observe the impact different levels of social distancing will have on the spread of COVID-19. The current social distancing reflects an approximate 60% return to normalcy, as compared with the level of social distancing before the pandemic. If we continue, as a nation, at the current level of social distancing, the model forecasts that we are likely to reach 20 million cases before the end of January 2021.

“Even small increases in social distancing can have a large effect on the number of cases we observe in the next two and a half months,” Thomadsen said. “Going back to a 50% return to normalcy, which was the average level of distancing in early August, would likely result in 5 million fewer cases by the end of January.

“We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April.”

Raphael Thomadsen

“We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April,” he added.

However, the researchers caution that this is likely a conservative estimate due to increased testing and the upcoming holidays.

“In our model, we assume that only 10% of cases are ever diagnosed, meaning that we will start to hit saturation,” said Song Yao, associate professor of marketing and study co-author. “However, more recently, testing has increased, and probably more like 25% of cases are diagnosed. In that case, total COVID cases would increase beyond 20 million in the next few months unless we, as a society, engage in more social distancing.”

“The upcoming holiday seasons will present a great deal of uncertainty to the outlook of the pandemic as people travel more at the end of the year. This will likely make our forecast an optimistic one,” said Meng Liu, assistant professor of marketing and study co-author.