Gabriella Conti, University College London

For Better or Worse? Subjective Expectations and Cost-Benefit Trade-Offs in Health Behavior: An application to lockdown compliance in the United Kingdom


Health behaviors are actions individuals take that affect their health. Most health behaviors can have both positive and negative consequences for the individual, generating trade-offs in choice. During the acute phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and the more extreme self-isolation and shielding were the main actions through which people could (were required to) protect themselves and others from infection and its health-harming consequences. Distancing and isolation, however, are not without costs or risks for individuals' wellbeing. Because the costs and benefits of alternative actions are ex ante uncertain, individual choices depend on decision makers' expectations over choice consequences and on how they resolve the trade-offs between expected costs and benefits. Using rich data on subjective expectations collected during the first UK lockdown, we first document people's perceived costs (risks) and benefits (returns) of alternative compliance behaviors along with their compliance plans. We then develop and estimate a simple model of compliance behavior with uncertain costs and benefits, which we use to quantify the utility trade-offs underlying compliance, decompose group differences in compliance into components attributable to variation in expectations vis-a-vis preferences, and compute the compensation required for people to be isolated. In a short follow-up, we implement a randomized sensitization intervention exploiting the timing of the "Cummings affair". We show that respondents react differentially to the treatment's negative prompt depending on their political affiliation, with labour supporters lowering their subjective probability of never leaving home (the government's recommendation) and increasing that of discretionary compliance. We finally discuss other possible applications of our general framework.

Gabriella has a BSc in Law from the University of Naples "Federico II", and a Diploma, MSc and PhD (2008) in Economics from the University of Essex. Prior to coming to UCL, she was first Post Doctoral Scholar in the Department of Economics, and then Research Associate (Assistant Professor) in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Gabriella's research draws on both the biomedical and the social sciences with the aim of understanding the developmental origins of health inequalities, and the behavioral and biological pathways through which early life conditions affect health throughout the life course.

She is currently working on projects on the health effects of early life interventions, both in humans and in nonhuman primates; on the importance of prenatal investments and fetal development for long‐term outcomes; and on the effects of health insurance on health in developing countries. Gabriella is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

You can read more about Gabriella Conti here

 CEBI contact: Mette Ejrnæs