COVID lockdown was a ‘live social experiment’ revealing how women, men behave during pandemics

VIENNA, Austria — Did the first coronavirus lockdown turn into one giant reality show? Scientists in Austria say COVID quarantine allowed them to conduct a “live social experiment,” revealing how men and women behave very differently during a pandemic.

In a crisis, the study finds women tend to make significantly longer phone calls and follow government measures more closely than men. Moreover, men are less likely to accept restrictions in their movement due to lockdown measures and tend to return to normal more quickly than women.

Experts at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna (CSH) say these cliché behavioral patterns cropped up during the first COVID-19 lockdowns back in spring 2020. Using data from the first lockdown, the researchers evaluated mobile phone data from 1.2 million Austrians between February and June of last year.

“The total shutdown of public life was like a population-wide live experiment,” researcher Tobias Reisch says in a media release.

At that time, CSH received access to anonymous mobile data from a major Austrian internet service provider, which the scientists used to observe people’s social mobility behavior.

“We were interested in the extent to which people supported the anti-Corona measures imposed by the government,” Reisch adds. “When we analyzed the data by gender, we found surprisingly strong behavioral differences between men and women.”

Women rely on their phones during a crisis

Their findings reveal that people in general made much longer phone calls right after the lockdown began.

“Interestingly, they talked to fewer people than usual—but with these few, they spoke longer,” Reisch continues.

Phone calls involving women lasted significantly longer, but there were big differences depending on who they were talking to. After the first lockdown in Austria started on March 16, 2020, calls from women to other women measured 1.5 times longer than before the pandemic. Phone calls from men to women lasted nearly twice as long.

The study also reveals that when women called men, they talked on the phone for 80 percent longer, while the duration of calls between men rose by 66 percent.

“Of course, we don’t know the content or purpose of these calls,” notes Georg Heiler, a researcher at the CSH and the Vienna University of Technology. “Yet, literature from the social sciences provides evidence—mostly from small surveys, polls, or interviews—that women tend to choose more active strategies to cope with stress, such as talking with others. Our study would confirm that.”

Men are ready to move on from COVID

The team also discovered that pre-existing social differences between men and women were amplified by the lockdown, with women going out far less than men. Using data from a large recreational area and a shopping mall in Vienna, the researchers found that more men visited both regions during the lockdown.

After the national health restrictions ended, the CSH team observed that men also returned more quickly to their pre-pandemic lives and behavioral patterns.

“This study shows once again that data—in this case telecommunication data—allows us to gain social insights quickly and at low costs, without violating the anonymity of individuals,” explains Stefan Thurner, the president of the CSH and the report’s co-author. “We see people’s behavior in the here and now without the need for large surveys of thousands of people.”

“On the one hand, this offers quantitative support for research questions in psychology and the social sciences – including interesting new questions emerging from data evaluations,” Thurner concludes. “On the other hand, we are providing concrete information for policymakers which can either be used for planning in an acute crisis, or flow into a more targeted health planning, or could even lead to considerations on how to achieve a more gender-equitable society.”

The findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports.

South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.

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