How psychology researchers are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

Matthew Warren, editor of our Research Digest, investigates.

26 March 2020

The world is currently in an unprecedented state of upheaval and uncertainty. As countries fight to minimise the spread of COVID-19, everyone is adjusting to the “new normal”, remaining at home and practising social distancing. And the same is true of the psychologists whose work we report on every day at Research Digest: labs have been shut and experiments have suddenly been put on hold in the wake of the pandemic.

But many psychologists have also begun launching new research to understand how the present crisis is affecting us, and to inform our response to it. So this week, I’ve been talking to some of these researchers to find out more about their work.

Monitoring our mental health

It’s clear that the new routines that we are now following are going to be necessary for quite some time. A new study led by social epidemiologist Daisy Fancourt is asking how people are responding to these changes in lifestyle.

We already know that our mental health can be affected by isolation, says Fancourt, and there’s never been a situation where so many people have been required to remain physically separated from others. “We’ve not really had something like this in living history,” she says.

To that end, the team is examining the trajectories of people’s mental health during the pandemic — and investigating what kinds of activities can help protect against the negative effects of isolation. Any UK resident over 18 can sign-up online and fill in an initial, 10 minute survey. Then, once a week, they will automatically get sent a follow-up questionnaire asking about their experiences of COVID-19, how they’ve been spending their time, and their physical and mental health.

By tracking a large number of participants over time, the team hopes to figure out what people can do at home to protect their mental health. They will release the findings regularly to the public and to the government and health authorities, beginning from next week. And they’re in it for the long haul, says Fancourt. “As long as this pandemic is going on, and we’re having these isolation measures, we want to make sure that there is a way that we’re tracking the experiences of people.”

Fancourt emphasises that it is crucial that people stay home — doing so will save lives. And there are activities known to be good for our mental health that we can already be doing, she adds: practising music and arts, for instance, or volunteering and providing support for others in the community.

Amy Orben from the University of Cambridge is part of another team planning a large, year-long study tracking the responses of adolescents and adults during the pandemic. The researchers, who are currently in discussion with funders, plan on tracking participants’ mood and mental health through the use of an app, which will send questions to their phones on a regular basis. Importantly, this app will also record behavioural data: what other apps people are using, for instance, and how long they are spending on their phones, as well as their movement and sleep patterns.

As in Fancourt’s study, the researchers hope the work will untangle how people’s activities relate to their mental health. They also plan on looking at how any events and announcements related to the pandemic affect participants’ responses. Orben says the team is keen to rapidly share data with the research community so that it can be analysed as quickly as possible.

For Orben, whose research focuses on the psychological effects of media use, one of the key questions will be how technology is being utilised in a time where face-to-face interaction is extremely limited. “I think it will allow us to move away from just thinking about time spent online and on screens to having more nuanced conversations about … what activities on screens are people actually engaging in,” she says. “Which ones of those are beneficial and help mitigate the effects of social isolation, and which ones might actually exacerbate stress?”

Exploring messaging and behaviour

Some researchers have already conducted preliminary research and published the results — as preprints, at least. Many of these studies have attempted to examine the value of different forms of public health messaging, or determine how people are behaving during the pandemic.

Take a recent preprint which surveyed more than 1,000 Americans across two days in March. The team, led by Jim Everett at the University of Kent and Molly Crocket at Yale University, looked at how moral messages could promote public health behaviours. Participants read a Facebook post urging people to stay at home, which was either accompanied by a “deontological” argument, telling people it was their duty to protect their community; a “utilitarian” argument, asking people to think of the negative consequences of not making these sacrifices now; an appeal to virtue, reminding people that staying home is what a good person would do; or no moral argument. They then indicated how likely they would be to adopt public health-related behaviours like washing their hands after getting home, or avoiding public gatherings.

Participants were more likely to indicate they would share the deontological message — the one that appealed to their sense of duty — than a post with no moral argument or a virtue-based one.  And there was some evidence that the deontological argument might increase people’s intentions to engage in health-related behaviours: participants reported a stronger intention to wash their hands after reading this message compared to the virtue-based one, for instance, although this effect did not reach statistical significance.

The study suggests that messages focused on citizens’ duties and responsibilities to others may be particularly useful. But the work is preliminary and there are important caveats: it only looks at people’s intentions rather than actual behaviour, and the effects are small and are not always significant. “What we’re very much not suggesting is that framing these judgments in more ‘deontological’ ways is unequivocally going to have huge impacts on behaviour,” acknowledges Everett. But still, the findings are consistent with past work, he says, adding that even interventions that produce small changes could, together, have an impact in the pandemic. The team is now working with other groups to see whether similar effects are found outside of the United States.

Researchers have also looked at how differences in personalities influence how likely we are to accept constraints to our quality of life (like social isolation) in order to protect ourselves or others from the virus. Ingo Zettler and colleagues from the University of Copenhagen have posted a preprint based on a survey of 799 Danish citizens who completed personality questionnaires. Participants who scored higher on the so-called “Dark Factor” — which relates to people’s willingness to pursue their own interests at the expense of others — were less likely to accept these constraints. In contrast, those who scored higher on the trait of emotionality, who tend to be more anxious and empathetic, were more likely to follow them.

Other rapid studies have included research into Americans’ perceptions of risk and behaviours early on in the pandemic, how empathy relates to social distancing, and the “optimism bias” when people consider the chance they will contract or pass on the virus. Again, it’s important to point out that most of this research consists of preprints which have not yet been peer-reviewed.

Proceeding quickly…

These studies represent just a snapshot of the work psychologists are conducting in the midst of the current crisis. J Nathan Matias from Cornell University and Alex Leavitt from Facebook Research have set up the COVID-19 Social Science Research Tracker, in which researchers can record details of projects they are working on. As of 26th March, more than 100 projects are listed, on everything from the spread of conspiracy theories to the effects of remote teaching on education.

The aim of the list is to help researchers who are planning studies find ways of working together and determine where they should be channelling their efforts, says Matias. The tracker will also ensure people are aware of new results as they become available.

Other networks are also getting involved in the response. The Psychological Science Accelerator, a network of labs which collaborate on large-scale studies, recently put out a call for “rapid and impactful studies” to understand the psychological side of the pandemic. The group has decided to go ahead with three of the proposals, including a study that will examine the behavioural benefits of framing public health information in terms of gains (e.g. lives saved) rather than losses (e.g. deaths). Several journals have also joined an initiative calling for submissions of Registered Reports on research related to COVID-19.

 but with caution

While researchers conduct rapid research and stick preprints online, there’s another key effort that scientists can get involved in, says Matias: peer-review. “As we move quickly to organise the production of new knowledge, we absolutely need people who can take the time to look through those preprints … and get us to the point of verified knowledge in time for it to be useful,” he says. Orben echoes these concerns: “Just because things are urgent doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be scrutinised.” That scrutiny itself will need to become more instantaneous, she adds. Many journals, including the British Journal of Social Psychology and the British Journal of Health Psychology are already promising expedited peer review of papers related to the pandemic.

Some psychologists have stressed that it’s also important this rapid response is informed by past work, whether that consists of studies into outbreaks specifically, or just well-grounded psychological science more generally. “The first rule of preventing harm is learning from what’s been done before,” tweeted Vaughan Bell recently. “If it’s urgent, the urgency is to do it right”.

And although many researchers are able to conduct psychological research in the midst of a pandemic, Matias emphasises that not everyone is in a position to do so.  “A lot of people have been impacted themselves in ways that make it difficult to continue research. And that’s okay,” he says.

For those who do have the time or means to do so, however, it can be rewarding. “It’s easy to feel quite helpless at the moment,” says Everett. “I’m really glad I’m doing it – it makes me feel like I am perhaps able to contribute in some small part”.

About the author

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest.