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Early in Pandemic, Mexicans Changed Social Distancing Behavior Based on U.S. Practices

Social networks provide people with new information; this type of social learning can be especially valuable when people face uncertainty about choices such as how to react to a pandemic. A new study documented the effect of information about social distancing practices in the United States on Mexicans’ social distancing behavior early in the Covid-19 pandemic. The study found that Mexicans in regions whose emigrants lived in U.S. counties with stronger social distancing practices engaged in more social distancing than Mexicans in regions whose emigrants lived in U.S. counties with weaker practices.

The study, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), was published as a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

“Our research points to the importance of social connections—in this case, receiving information about social distancing from acquaintances, friends, and family living in the United States—in driving compliance in Mexico with public health recommendations during a pandemic,” says Brian K. Kovak, associate professor of economics and public policy at CMU’s Heinz College, who coauthored the study.

Social distancing is considered effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus. The outbreak of Covid-19 in the United States occurred about two weeks earlier than in Mexico, and in the United States, there was substantial variation in the timing of and compliance with social distancing policies.

The study used data on pre-existing migrant connections between Mexican and U.S. locations, including administrative data from a program that provides identity cards to Mexicans living in the United States and mobile phone tracking data collected by Facebook and Unacast, to reveal social distancing behavior in U.S. counties.

Social distancing varied substantially across U.S. counties, and since migrants from different Mexican locations go to very different sets of U.S. destinations, the study found significant variation in Mexicans’ exposure to U.S. social distancing. The study found that Mexican locations whose emigrants lived in U.S. counties with stronger social distancing practices had larger declines in mobility than Mexican locations whose emigrants lived in U.S. counties with weaker social distancing practices. Mexican regions with more favorable socioeconomic conditions responded more strongly to information about U.S. social distancing, but the effect did not differ significantly based on the characteristics of migrants’ locations in the United States, the study concluded.

The researchers showed that changes in mobility were similar across Mexican locations prior to the pandemic, and took into account the number of Covid-19 cases in Mexico and in the U.S. counties to which the migrants were connected, along with local characteristics such as population density, urban status, age distribution, education, income, and employment rate. They also considered Mexican and U.S. state government stay-at-home orders.

“Our work highlights how information is transmitted across countries through migrant networks, documenting migrants’ role in spreading public-health information with potential life-and-death consequences,” suggests Yuan Tian, postdoctoral fellow at CMU’s Heinz College, who led the study. “Our study also contributes to the emerging literature examining the determinants of compliance with public health recommendations in the midst of Covid-19 outbreaks.”

“When policymakers seek to change fundamental social behaviors, such as social distancing or wearing masks during a disease outbreak, our results demonstrate the importance of taking into consideration personal connections,” adds Maria Esther Caballero, a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at CMU, who coauthored the study. 


Summarized from a working paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Social Learning Along International Migrant Networks by Tian, Y (Carnegie Mellon University), Caballero, ME (Carnegie Mellon University), and Kovak, BK (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. 

About Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy is home to two internationally recognized graduate-level institutions at Carnegie Mellon University: the School of Information Systems and Management and the School of Public Policy and Management. This unique colocation combined with its expertise in analytics set Heinz College apart in the areas of cybersecurity, health care, the future of work, smart cities, and arts & entertainment. In 2016, INFORMS named Heinz College the #1 academic program for Analytics Education. For more information, please visit