It is one of the largest psychological studies ever: more than one hundred researchers from dozens of countries and nearly sixty thousand participants from countries all over the world. Together they are responsible for creating a gigantic database on the psychological effects of coronavirus and the countless scientific articles it has produced. This has been facilitated by Sustainable Society and the Ubbo Emmius Fund of the University of Groningen. Associated Professor Pontus Leander is the initiator of the project and explains more.
How did it come about? Pontus Leander: ‘At the start of the coronavirus outbreak we realised immediately: “This is important.” And we knew we had to be quick. If you want to conduct a good study, the ideal scenario is to track a phenomenon from beginning to end. Fortunately I had just prepared a study into how people respond to threats together with my PhD students. As a behavioural psychologist with roots in the US, I work on mass shootings. So we knew the way to study how people deal with a threat. We were able to apply that straightaway, albeit to a different topic than we initially had in mind.’
The coronavirus pandemic started in January 2020, and has continued for two years by now. In January we received the first signals that it was about to break out. In February 2020, we had the first coronavirus infection in the Netherlands, and after that things moved very quickly. In May, there were four million infections in 180 countries. Many governments decided to announce lockdowns to stop the transmission of this dangerous virus. There was a time when 2.6 billion people were in lockdown, about one third of the world population, and more people than populated the earth at the time of the last pandemic, the Spanish Flu in 1918.
This was a first in global history, and scientists called it the ‘largest psychological experiment’ in the world ever. How do people respond to the threat of a pandemic, to government measures and to lockdowns? What are the psychological and social effects? Are there cultural differences in the responses?
Research at an unprecedented scale
Leander: ‘In March, the lockdown started in the Netherlands. We had carried out many studies into reactions to gun violence. My interest is particularly in unconscious motivations. Why do people do what they do, react the way they react? How do people respond to such a threat? Do they want to fall in with social standards or do they become aggressive, for example? Are there cultural differences between countries? We wanted to study psychological aspects, but cultural aspects too.
Whilst we were preparing our research into coronavirus, it became clear to us fairly quickly that we needed to tackle this on a large scale. On an extremely large, unimaginably large scale. So we started looking for help. Within a few weeks more than a hundred researchers from dozens of countries responded to say they wanted to participate. We hired organisations who could help us find participants, and in May we reached 58,000 participants. We hoped for financial support in the order of millions, but such an amount could not be found at such short notice. So we are running almost fully on volunteers.
Fortunately we did receive financial support from Sustainable Society (in 2022 their name will change to Agricola School of Sustainable Development) and the Ubbo Emmius Fund. They were very quick to make financial resources available, and really came to our rescue. We also received support from the Universities of New York and Abu Dhabi, who joined our study. Remember that you're not just dealing with questionnaires, but also with all manner of issues concerning privacy and security. That requires experienced ICT people and lawyers. In the beginning, we were working sixteen-hour days.’
Sixty thousand participants
‘We produced a website where participants could answer a questionnaire with a hundred questions. Some sixty thousand people completed the questionnaire. That took them twenty minutes. After the first questionnaire, around 10% of those people registered for our follow-up questionnaires. In the spring of 2020 we sent those out on a weekly basis and after that monthly to the spring/summer of 2021,’ Leander continued.
‘In the beginning we thought it would all be over in a few months, but by now we're heading for two years. Interesting, because with the follow-up questionnaires we could measure conscious and unconscious changes in people's behaviour. The scientists who are often doing this research alongside their normal work, are still working on this. By now it is starting to produce a significant flow of publications.’
Remarkable differences between countries
As every country took different measures, it is possible to make comparisons. They demonstrate, for example, that the severity of a lockdown has a clear correlation with prejudices against immigrants who live in that country. The stronger the lockdown, the more people are against immigrants. That was something we had predicted by the way. The angrier people become, the more they look for someone to blame. The surprising fact was that this only applied to Western countries and not to Asian countries. Perhaps because people in the West are more used to individual freedom? But there are other possible explanations.”
The study was faced with the differences between countries in more than one way. Leander: ‘We were not able to ask all the questions in all the countries. Sometimes that was due to political differences, sometimes it was about culture. For example, “do you trust the government?” was not a question we could ask in every single country. You do not want to put your participants in danger. Other questions were left out in certain countries, because they were considered extremely impolite. For those issues we had to rely on the judgement of the scientists in those countries.
Trust in the government
Another correlation we found was that people who trust the government, are generally more prepared to help the weaker people in society. Leander: ‘A correlation, but we do not know whether there is a causal link. One of the most striking phenomena of the pandemic is of course a group of people who seemingly wish to escape the reality. There is a flood of conspiracy theories. A certain distrust of the government is justified, but when does it become thinking it is all a plot?
From a government point of view it is important whether people will comply with the measures. By far the most important predictive factors appears to be what people believe other people will do. So not what the government prescribes, but what acquaintances and colleagues think about it all. There will be many more conclusions of course, because by now we have created a database that is unparalleled in size and collected enough data for years of work and countless papers. The study is still running and the database continues to grow.’
Research results are on the Psycorona website
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