Summary of the JOIE article (24 January 2022) by Daniil Frolov, Faculty of Economics and Management, Volgograd State Technical University, Russia. The full article is available on the JOIE website.
National governments are the main actors enforcing preventative measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on top-down policies and sanctions. Now it is becoming more and more evident that this is an inadequate and ineffective paradigm that exaggerates the importance of state-led strict measures and diminishes the role of citizens’ agency. Building on Elinor Ostrom’s legacy, Pablo Paniagua and Veeshan Rayamajhee (2021) develop an alternative to the dominant paradigm – a polycentric approach to pandemic governance. According to this approach, governments worldwide should view citizens (and other non-state actors) as essential co-producers of preventative actions.
I argue that a polycentric approach to pandemic governance can be strengthened by incorporating another of Ostrom’s inventions – a ‘crafting of institutions’ approach (Ostrom, 1992). Crafting of institutions, according to Ostrom, refers to a bottom-up evolutionary process by which multiple actors ‘artisanally’ develop satisfactory practical rules-in-use. We can consider the co-production of COVID-19 preventative measures as a crafting of institutions, namely, of behavioral norms and rules related to the observance of antiviral restrictions (including physical distancing, wearing masks, vaccinations, and quarantining). Adherence to behavioral norms to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus is very much the result of co-production by the state and citizens. The state plays an active role in crafting institutions, but this is only as co-producer.
But before behavioral rules-in-use for countering COVID-19 can be co-produced, necessary cognitive institutions must be co-produced too. These cognitive institutions are shared cognitive rules (see Greif and Mokyr, 2017), shared cognitive norms, and shared mental models that underlie behavioral norms and rules. I will add that the cognitive institutions are not ready-made, complete, and static shared mental models but unfinished, ongoing, shared mental models that are constantly co-produced and reassembled by various actors. Cognitive institutions can instead be seen as ‘shared mental processes’ (Petracca and Gallagher, 2020: 753) through which existing shared mental models become objects of reinterpretation, clarification, addition, questioning, argumentation, criticism, etc. Digital technologies have greatly expanded the ability of citizens to craft cognitive institutions. When we like, repost, or comment on social media posts, we become digital co-producers of cognitive institutions.
Cognitive norms, like behavioral norms, are co-produced by multiple actors with differing interests, values, and worldviews. As a result, citizens become active co-producers of preventative measures and active co-producers of alternative norms related to medical mask resistance (anti-masking), non-compliance with physical distancing, and vaccine hesitancy. The production heterogeneous cognitive and behavioral norms is the flip side of co-production; it is an inherent feature and not just an ‘additional hurdle’ to polycentric governance. Many citizens worldwide have become co-producers of cognitive norms associated with COVID-skepticism, COVID conspiracy theories, and anti-vaccinationism; social media technologies contribute to the widespread dissemination of these norms. Consequently, destructive behavioral norms are becoming widespread, including wearing masks incorrectly, only formally complying with physical distancing requirements, self-quarantine violations, and buying fake vaccine passes. These norms are produced in all communities in parallel with the co-production of preventative measures.
Effective pandemic governance is impossible without the crafting and promotion of cognitive institutions that support vaccination, physical distancing, and masking. However, it is naive to think that in the case of COVID-19, we are dealing with a choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ shared mental models. Cognitive institutions do not compete in a one-on-one battle; they always compete in ensembles, or, rather, assemblages – messy combinations of heterogeneous elements. Therefore, in reality, ‘bad’ mental models represent a continuum of shared perceptions and beliefs. Contrary to established stereotypes, the shared mental models and motivations that cause COVID-skeptical worldviews and behaviors are highly heterogeneous. Among the COVID skeptics and anti-vaxxers, some believe in science and the real danger of the virus, while others believe in conspiracy theories or are motivated by other reasons. The COVID-related cognitive-institutional continuum includes fake news and myths deliberately disseminated by organized anti-vaccine groups and spontaneously emerging half-truths and partial mental models created by unorganized anti-vaccine networks. There is no unified set of anti-vaccine beliefs to fight against. Thus, the co-production of anti-COVID cognitive institutions becomes a non-trivial task.
Personal mental models do not exist in isolation from cognitive institutions. When we use our mental models in cognitive processes, we permanently ‘activate’ external cognitive institutions, ‘connect’ to their network, and ‘update’ our personal mental models. For example, both science-based COVID-19 knowledge and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are networks of cognitive institutions. Their proponents are constantly ‘uploading’ new arguments, narratives, examples, clarifications, and facts into these cognitive institutions. (Here, I’m drawing an analogy to how different users make edits to shared files in the cloud.) As a result, in each instance we use somewhat changed cognitive institutions. When we refer to them, we ‘update’ our mental models to new ‘versions’ of cognitive institutions. Based on cognitive institutions, people develop a set of emotionally charged personal mental models and then glean information to reinforce and support those mental models. Therefore, the provision of new and more reasoned data and facts to debunk COVID-related myths does not change the views and beliefs of anti-vaxxers and COVID skeptics and may even strengthen them. Consequently, individual-oriented information activities will be much less effective than joint co-productions of COVID-related cognitive institutions.
In addition to ‘hard’ COVID-19 preventative measures, such as government mandates, restrictions, and punishments, the state can implement two types of ‘soft’ (nonregulatory and nonmonetary) anti-COVID interventions. Firstly, nudges are targeted changes in the choice situation architecture that imperceptibly force people to correct their decision-making. Secondly, boosts are training programs and tools that can improve the quality of conscious decision-making. The boosting approach aims to upgrade decision makers’ cognitive and motivational competencies ‘by enriching his or her repertoire of skills and decision tools and/or by restructuring the environment’ (Grüne-Yanoff and Hertwig, 2016: 152). Anti-COVID boosts include simple rules pertaining to collective intelligence, fast and frugal heuristics, and brief instructions (Krawiec et al., 2021). We can say that boosts are simple, intuitive cognitive institutions. The result of institutional crafting is shared cognitive rules-in-use and norms-in-use, which form community-specific systems of cognitive institutions. The study of such systems and our participation in their co-production as experts can be a promising area of cooperation between institutional and behavioral economists. This collaboration is crucial for the development and promotion of polycentric pandemic governance.
Greif, A. and J. Mokyr (2017), ‘Cognitive rules, institutions, and economic growth: Douglass North and beyond’, Journal of Institutional Economics, 13(1): 25-52.
Grüne-Yanoff, T. and R. Hertwig (2016), ‘Nudge Versus Boost: How Coherent are Policy and Theory?’, Minds and Machines, 26: 149-183.
Krawiec, J. M., O. M. Piaskowska, P. F. Piesiewicz and W. Białaszek (2021), ‘Tools for public health policy: nudges and boosts as active support of the law in special situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic’, Globalization and Health, 17: 132.
Ostrom, E. (1992), Crafting institutions for self-governing irrigation systems, California: Institute for Contemporary Studies.
Paniagua, P. and V. Rayamajhee (2021), ‘A polycentric approach for pandemic governance: Nested externalities and co-production challenges’, Journal of Institutional Economics, published online. DOI:10.1017/S1744137421000795.
Petracca, E. and S. Gallagher (2020), ‘Economic cognitive institutions’, Journal of Institutional Economics, 16(6): 747-765.