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The psychological impact of the coronavirus crisis

07 April 2020
Pontus Leander: ‘Psychology and culture could influence the spread of the virus’
Pontus Leander: ‘Psychology and culture could influence the spread of the virus’

What are the consequences of the coronavirus crisis for our wellbeing? What are people’s thoughts surrounding this pandemic? What are their expectations regarding its future economic consequences? Psychologist Pontus Leander is leading a global psychological study, PsyCorona, into the consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

Text: Eelco Salverda, Communication UG / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren

Participants of PsyCorona complete an online survey about their thoughts, feelings and worries regarding the virus. They also indicate what consequences they expect for their financial situation and for society. ‘Psychology and culture could influence the spread of the virus,’ says Leander, explaining the goal of the study. ‘Human psychology may also change in response to the pandemic. We aim to mobilize behavioural and data scientists to identify targets for rapid intervention, to slow the spread of the pandemic and minimize its social damage.’

Closed shops cause problems for entrepreneurs and employees
Closed shops cause problems for entrepreneurs and employees

Differences between countries

The study started as a collaboration between the UG and New York University–Abu Dhabi. Groningen is functioning as a nexus, with Leander as lead researcher. The project now has branches across the entire world, with over 100 psychologists already taking part. The survey can now be completed in more than 20 languages, with more language options being added every day. The fact that the study is being carried out in a number of countries adds an extra dimension, explains Leander. ‘From strict lockdowns to more liberal policies and from wearing masks to denying the seriousness of the situation: the governments and residents of each country are responding differently to the pandemic. We want to know whether psychology and culture can explain some of these differences.’

Unique situation

The streets are quiet and shops are limiting the number of customers allowed in at any one time. Many people are working from home, even if some of them are being distracted by their children’s school work. At the entrances to supermarkets, we have to wash our hands before pushing a trolley that has just been cleaned on the spot, to make sure that we can’t get too close to one another. We find ourselves in a situation that is incomparable to any other. A unique situation for research? Leander: ‘Psychological research is essential at the moment. In times of stability, we develop new theories and tools to test in our laboratories. In times of crisis, we must put those theories and tools to the test.’

We are confronted with the measures against the coronavirus daily
We are confronted with the measures against the coronavirus daily

Mood swings

With higher death rates every day, prognoses by the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis about an approaching recession, pressure and stress within healthcare, irritation about not being productive at home... Feelings about the crisis and expectations about the future can change every day and depend on all sorts of factors. This also means that the answers provided in each country may differ strongly from day to day. Is the study taking these daily mood swings into account? ‘Yes, we are studying the pandemic in real time. We are scaling up our operations to include what we call a “data science mission” that links our survey questions to the changes that are occurring at the regional level. Some of these changes were unimaginable until recently.’ Questions about conspiracy theories and asylum seekers also appear in the survey. When asked why, Leander keeps his answers slightly vague, just like he did in some of his other responses. He doesn’t want to reveal too much about the study, as he does not want to influence the results.

Improvising

Can Leander remember another situation that is somewhat comparable to the current one, about which similar research was also conducted? ‘If such a situation existed, I sure would like to see their strategy,’ he says. Leander explains how the uncertainty of the situation influences the study. ‘PsyCorona is the type of project that would usually take months or even years to plan and coordinate. But now, we have to elaborate our processes in days, sometimes even hours. Given that it is a global crisis, we are also experiencing extra difficulties such as language and translation issues, attempting to increase societal support, and processing and analysing the responses, all in the shortest time possible.’

Different after the crisis

‘Will people still be the same after this crisis? That is what I am personally the most curious about,’ admits Leander. ‘Civilization is changing extremely rapidly. As a psychologist, I am interested to see what people prioritize and what we start letting go of.’

Results

Leander can’t say when the study will be completed. ‘We just started a couple of weeks ago and the initial responses have already been promising. Nevertheless, we still need much more data. Our timeframe completely depends on the extent of participation. We need people who want to help us get the word out about this survey. As soon as we have enough data, we will start posting carefully-processed results on our website.’

More information

Last modified:14 April 2020 09.44 a.m.
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