Short on Shots: Can Calls on Self-Restraint Be Effective in Managing the Scarcity of a Vital Good?
Posted: 2 Mar 2006
Date Written: January 2006
During the unexpected shortage of flu vaccines in the Fall 2004, we observed the responses of the members of a U.S. campus population to two distinct randomized treatments in a designed field experiment. Corresponding to the management strategy followed by the Center for Disease Control, one treatment provided information about a sharply reduced number of vaccination clinics (scarcity) and their schedule (deadlines); and the other provided the same information plus an appeal to self-restraint to favor priority groups. We find that information about scarcity and deadlines induced a sharp 110% increase in demand, while calls on self-restraint only helped reduce this demand by 37.5%, resulting in a 32% increase in demand. An analysis of confidential survey responses from candidates as to being members of a priority group before they confronted soft-screening by the health center staff suggests that, perversely, the net increase in demand originated entirely in the non-priority population. The priority population demonstrated altruism in exercising self-restraint, thereby canceling among them the increase in demand due to scarcity and deadlines. Survey answers to recall questions suggest that the demand from non-priority individuals who used vaccination services the previous year increased sharply in response to scarcity and deadlines, their self-restraint was modest, and they contributed most to cheating. These findings suggest that the allocation strategy chosen, and enforced by only soft screening, of defining priority groups and calling on self-restraint among non-members of these groups was not effective. Indeed there was a net increase in vaccines distributed of 17% compared to no strategy, and this was entirely due to non-priority individuals.
Keywords: Randomized experiment, shortage, self-restraint, cheating.
JEL Classification: C93
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation