An International Investigation of the Psychology of COVID-19

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At the outset of the 1918 Spanish Flu—one of the deadliest pandemics in human history—Soper (1919) conjectured three psychological factors responsible for ineffective prevention and spread: bias in risk assessment, resistance to social isolation, and inability to comply with preventive measures against an invisible threat. One hundred years later, similar social and psychological factors would contribute to the spread of COVID-19 across the globe. As a response, governments have sponsored fast-track vaccine development and introduced policy interventions aimed at inducing behavioral change limiting the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. In the early days of the pandemic (April-May 2020), when vaccines were but a hope, it was crucial that as many people as possible complied with public health advice to modify their behavior (such as keeping spatial distance, improving physical hygiene, limiting travel, closing bars and restaurants, or using digital contact tracing apps). Recognizing the gravity of the situation, a multi-national team of social and behavioral science researchers was assembled.

This project was initiated by Jay Van Bavel, Mark Alfano, Valerio Capraro, Aleksandra Cichocka, Hallgeir Sjåstad, and Paulo Boggio, who were interested in examining psychological factors underlying the attitudes and behavioral intentions related to COVID-19. They sent out an open call for international collaborators on Twitter. The invitation was open to researchers from different world regions and career stages, and asked scholars to collect 500 or more participants from a representative sample in their home country, and in some cases, beyond (i.e., when scholars were able to collect data in other countries). It resulted in the establishment of the International Collaboration on the Social & Moral Psychology (ICSMP) of COVID-19.

The ICSMP looked into various psychological factors such as beliefs in conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, perceptions of infection risk, cognitive reflection, self-esteem, intellectual humility, feelings of social belonging, interpersonal trust, moral identity, political ideology (i.e., left-right), collective narcissism, and national identification. One goal of the ICSMP was to gain comprehensive information from populations that extended beyond convenience samples of undergraduate, MTurk, or WEIRD participants (i.e., ensuing from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries, but see this for an alternative perspective). The scholars were also interested to test a multitude of hypotheses and disseminating findings regarding research they had a keen interest in. Another goal was to provide the data collected as a public good for the scientific community. Eventually, over 250 researchers got involved and collected data from more than  50,000 participants in 67 countries. As an addendum to the core study, contributors were also offered to include their own items. The team has been operating under a model of open collaboration and open science where all contributors received authorship on the first paper, and all measures and data will be made publicly available for future analyses.

During the period of our data collection (April-May, 2020), while most of the countries were implementing severe restrictions of movement, some of our teams of researchers faced hurdles to collecting data. In many Orthodox Christian countries, data collection took place between Orthodox Christmas and International Labor Day, so participants were on vacation and hard to reach. African countries with Muslim majorities such as Senegal and Morocco were also celebrating Ramadan. In traditional societies, where women have less access to education and the internet, collecting samples balanced by gender was thus particularly difficult. Low internet availability was another major challenge in India, Ukraine, Latin American, and African countries, making reaching rural populations an onerous task.

To our knowledge, a few countries did not possess polling infrastructure, and incentivizing participants was not feasible. To collect data, some researchers relied on placing advertisements on news aggregators to make the study widely known to the population. Other researchers reached out to local bloggers to disseminate messages encouraging people to participate, used private messaging apps such as WhatsApp or WeChat (massively used during the pandemic, especially in areas without print media), and asked colleagues from local communities to reach out to their respondents through mailing lists. These efforts are in stark contrast with countries with existing (and sometimes commercially managed) survey panels, where collecting data was comparatively swift.

The findings from our large international collaboration are summarized in a paper published in Nature Communications featuring two large-scale global studies, showing that national identity was the strongest positive predictor of public health support. In Study 1, we found that those who identified more strongly with their nation consistently reported greater engagement in public health behaviors and support for public health policies. National identity here measures the degree to which individuals identify with their nation, using a scientifically validated questionnaire. Importantly, this construct is distinct from nationalism or nationalist ideology, and our results were obtained controlling for symbolic ideology—self-placement on the liberal-conservative scale. Through a constructive and collaborative peer review process, we were encouraged to include an additional study in order to highlight the robustness and behavioral implications of our findings. Therefore, in Study 2, using data from 42 countries of the World Values Survey (WVS; Haerpfer et al, 2020) and COVID-19 Google Community Mobility Reports, we found that pre-pandemic levels of national identification derived from the WVS predicted stronger change in mobility in response to COVID-19 restrictions during April and May 2020 (the period during which data for study 1 was collected). 

Figure 1. Map of the 67 participating countries and territories with total sample size scaled to color (we did not obtain samples from countries in grey).
Figure 1. Map of the 67 participating countries and territories with total sample size scaled to color (we did not obtain samples from countries in grey). 

Taken together, our large global studies indicate that those identifying most strongly with their nation reported the greatest willingness to accept the costly sacrifices resulting from engaging in protective behaviors and supporting public health policies. This finding opens up concrete avenues for policy-makers who can encourage a sense of togetherness to motivate collective action against the spread of COVID-19.

In a pandemic with more than 270 million cases and more than 5 million deaths at the time of writing, behavioral science is vital in providing crucial insights into the underpinnings of collective behavior, providing consequential tools to manage the public’s response to a pandemic, scientific and expert advice, as well as to help national and international governmental organizations understand “how people make decisions, so we can support them to make the best decisions for their health” (WHO, 2020).


References

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This piece was originally written by Flavio Azevedo, and reviewed and edited by Biljana Gjoneska, Valerio Capraro, Tom Etienne, Claus Lamm, Antoine Marie, Simon Jangard, Jonas Nitschke, Victoria Oldemburgo de Mello, Arathy Puthillam, Julian Riaño Moreno, Agustin Ibanez, Matthew Nurse, and Yucheng Zhang (ordered in terms of their contribution).


Flavio Azevedo

Senior Researcher, Friedrich Schiller University

I'm a Fulbright fellow and a senior research associate in Political Psychology at the Institute of Communication Science at Friedrich Schiller University (incoming researcher at Cambridge University, UK). My research focuses on ideology, how to measure it, and its role in justifying social and economic injustices. I'm the principal investigator of The Psychology of Political Behavior Studies (PPBS), an ongoing series of quota-based national cross-sections and panel studies in Political Psychology. I co-founded and direct FORRTFramework for Open and Reproducible Research Training— an award-winning interdisciplinary initiative aiming to integrate open scholarship principles into higher education. I tweet about psychology, political science, open science, and statistics @Flavio_Azevedo_. To learn more about my research, check out my personal website.

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