The Biggest Pandemic Study in the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the findings of this project could shape the post-pandemic world.
By Nick Fouriezos
Before COVID-19, Michelle vanDellen — an American social psychologist specializing in human motivations and behavior — had never surveyed more than a thousand or so people in a study, a number that typically would be considered a healthy, statistically significant cohort.
But as the globe grapples with the societal effects caused by the pandemic, the American psychologist finds herself in a wild situation for any researcher: coordinating a project spanning more than 100 countries and 60,000 people surveyed about how the coronavirus is affecting their lives.
The results of the PsyCorona Study, the biggest pandemic behavior study in the world, could be instrumental in shaping the new normal once a cure — or at least a treatment — is found. And even though it’s only been operating for a few months, there are already some major takeaways, including:
- Men have been dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, and not just for biological reasons. Countries that have more gender disparity in the workplace have the highest rates of male deaths, and surveys show that men also perceive themselves to be at less risk and take fewer precautions.
- Economic worry, rather than health concerns, more directly correlates with people taking precautions — meaning that stressing financial fears could incentivize more responsible public health behavior.
- The more people have trusted their governments, the more likely they have been to follow preventative health guidelines like social distancing and wearing masks.
These are early results and still await peer review, VanDellen stresses. More complicated results, with far-reaching conclusions, will continue to stream in as more data is collected across the surveys, which return to the same participants weekly to get a real-time snapshot of their evolving feelings amid the pandemic. “These findings all sound so simple,” she says, “but the tests of them are very robust and based on thousands and thousands of data. Instead of speculating, we can be pretty confident in these associations.”
We can do both. We can be both rigorous and relevant.
The data collection of the PsyCorona Study started with Pontus Leander, a University of Groningen psychologist, whose graduate students led a smaller-scale version in early March. Once the COVID-19 pandemic went global, Leander quickly realized the study would need to expand worldwide and reached out to Jocelyn Belanger at New York University Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to help.
Given the sudden size of the project, “we had to create a scientific organization,” Leander says, and he immediately thought of VanDellen, his graduate school classmate at Duke University. She has since played a key role in making sure every study is reviewed thoroughly before disseminating its results. “She’s got that grit and determination that any scientist admires and would envy. Above all of this, she is an honorable person, with a strong moral compass and sense of ethics.”
The pandemic presents a fascinating challenge for psychology — a scientific field that was in its infancy the last time a disaster approaching this level of global impact (the Spanish flu of 1918) hit. Back then, the field had mostly a biological focus, studying issues of sensation and perception. “It’s new for psychology to do something like this. There is no playbook,” Leander says.
The University of Georgia professor, who is in her 30s, has focused on applying an extra level of rigor — a scrupulousness she sees as necessary in an age where scientific findings can sometimes be pulled into hyperbole in an effort to maximize new discoveries. “Especially in a time where discovery is so compelling, because of the COVID crisis and the nature of it, the tendency is just to put things out there,” she says. “This is a time for us to say: We can do both. We can be both rigorous and relevant.”
That mentality is part of why Leander approached VanDellen about coordinating the project. “If you go too fast, your risk for error goes up exponentially. One fatal error, and then we’re done,” he says. VanDellen’s hope is that mentality won’t just match this project, but will be a lasting legacy on those she’s working with. “A lot of the researchers are graduate or postdoctoral students,” she says. “This is a chance to really shape the [rigor vs. discovery] debate with the next generation of psychologists.”