michelle vandellen

Michelle vanDellen, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, is one of seven professionals from the United States contributing to the Psycorona study. (Courtesy)

Psychologists and data scientists from all around the world are teaming up for PsyCorona, a global project analyzing the different ways people are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team, composed of professionals from 28 countries, is studying how certain factors such as culture, religion and government responses might be influencing people’s thoughts and feelings regarding the coronavirus.

Michelle vanDellen, a University of Georgia associate social psychology professor, is one of seven professionals from the United States contributing to the study. VanDellen shared some of her experience with the project so far, as well as what she hopes to see come out of it.

The Red & Black: How did you end up getting involved with PsyCorona?

Michelle vanDellen: Yeah. So the project started at school in the Netherlands called the University of Groningen. And I have a very good friend and colleague there, he and I went to graduate school together. So he looped me in because we needed an American presence and he wanted some of my expertise on the health behaviors that might be important to measure as well as the scientific administration of the project.

R&B: And what was it that actually made you decide that you wanted to be a part of it? Because I imagine it’s not an easy project and that it probably takes up a good bit of time.

MV: So I mean, I think there's lots of different reasons to be a part of it. I think that. it's really interesting to watch, as a social psychologist. That's my training, I'm basically a professional people watcher. And so you know, we've never seen anything like [COVID-19 pandemic] before so just intellectually it's really interesting to have a chance to do this science, to be involved with a project that lets me ask questions that I would never have dreamed it asking and, to be honest, I really would never have wanted to be able to ask.

R&B: Why do you think it’s important for us to have psychological data during this time instead of just public health data and economic data?

MV: So I'm going to use the really striking example that psychologists use: we have medicines that treat and manage almost every disease and illness, but we can't always get people to take the medicine. We can create the drugs, but if we can't convince people to take them, what good does it do? And that's where psychologists come into play because we understand the complexities of people: how are they thinking, how are they feeling, how are they behaving and how those things are connected to each other. If you really want to make the change you have to know what works and then convince people to do it.

R&B: So from what I’m hearing that data is important because it’s not just about coming up with the solutions, but it’s also about how to make people believe that these are actually the solutions.

MV: And getting them to comply. Social distancing is a 100% full-proof way to keep the virus from spreading. If everyone stayed in their home all the time for the next year, nobody else could get sick from corona[virus]. But people don’t want to stay in their home. So how do we deal with the mental health and physical health limitations that the request is imposing on them, and how do we manage them when we do need to open up the boundaries for what’s allowed and what’s reasonable?

R&B: Could you give me some examples of some of the things PsyCorona is trying to measure and trying to study?

MV: I know we have a couple of proposals looking at conspiracy beliefs and how that predicts reactions to COVID-19, as well as what predicts having conspiracy beliefs. We're also looking at the role of hope in helping people maintain mental and physical health practices. So optimism and hope for the future is a big one. We also have a good bit of trust in government.

R&B: What are some of the biggest differences you’re seeing between different countries and these different communities?

MV: So I do think it comes down to the government and then also the willingness to sacrifice for one's self versus the community. Like in other countries there's a lot more willingness to take a sacrifice, to take a burden for somebody else than there is here. It's also a bit more complicated because other countries have such a different support network. Like filing for unemployment is like, a lot easier in other countries, and so people can actually get money without the kind of hurdles people are going through here.

R&B: Why do you think it’s significant that this is an international project?

MV: Personally, I do think we're going to have to work together to open up borders. So just like we’re going to have to work together in Athens to keep Athens safe and we’re going to have to work together in Georgia to keep Georgia safe, If we're going to open up international travel again we're going to have to be able to trust and coordinate with each other. And I think this project will help us understand and connect the fullness of the issue. And highlight that it's much more of a shared problem than an isolated problem.

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