We systematically examine the acute impact of exposure to a public health crisis on anti-social behaviour and economic decision-making using unique experimental panel data from China, collected just before the outbreak of COVID-19 and immediately after the first wave was overcome. Exploiting plausibly exogenous geographical variation in virus exposure coupled with a dataset of longitudinal experiments, we show that participants who were more intensely exposed to the virus outbreak became more anti-social than those with lower exposure, while other aspects of economic and social preferences remain largely stable. The finding is robust to multiple hypothesis testing and a similar, yet less pronounced pattern emerges when using alternative measures of virus exposure, reflecting societal concern and sentiment, constructed using social media data. The anti-social response is particularly pronounced for individuals who experienced an increase in depression or negative affect, which highlights the important role of psychological health as a potential mechanism through which the virus outbreak affected behaviour.
The online experimental protocol can be accessed here.