How Should Psychological Researchers Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic?

 By Lily Brough, Bedales School, Petersfield, Hampshire


This essay explores three main areas of potential psychological research in response to  COVID-19. With the coronavirus pandemic being such a global and complex event, it is undeniable that the psychological impacts will be just as impactful. Mental health is a vital area of research to consider, both the effects of working around COVID-19 but also the indirect effects of lockdown measures. Similarly, the impact on development should be closely monitored due to the severe disruptions to children’s lives. Finally, more broadly it is important to consider behavioural responses to COVID-19 including explanations for varying adherence to government guidelines.  

The impacts of COVID-19 continue to reveal themselves and it is imperative psychologists use this opportunity to advance psychological understanding. COVID-19 has amassed over  235,000,000 cases worldwide (Worldometers, 2021), providing extensive scope for natural experimentation. In particular, the impact of the pandemic on mental health will likely be vast and long-lasting, so it is important to acknowledge these impacts to address them.  Similarly, development will have been severely disrupted due to lockdown restrictions and research should be carried out to record these effects during development. In a wider  context, the pandemic has resulted in profound changes to lifestyles and behaviours, 

providing the possibility to deepen our understanding of what motivates and influences human behaviour.  

COVID-19 has intensified and created new stressors that could negatively impact mental health. Social isolation, financial uncertainty, illness, and grief are just a few of the factors people have been dealing with during the pandemic. Frontline workers are likely at a high risk of developing negative mental health, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Nurses and doctors witnessing more severe illness and loss daily are being exposed to potentially traumatic experiences which could lead to PTSD or C-PTSD. Early studies by King’s  College University already indicate this reality with 40% of participants meeting the threshold for likely clinical PTSD (Greenberg, 2021). In addition, constantly experiencing distress at work could lead to the development of negative views on the self or the world,  parts of Beck’s negative triad explanation for depression (Southam-Gerow, McLeod, Brown,  Quinov, & Avny, 2011). It is also important to consider how COVID-19 itself is impacting people. Long-covid has been revealed to cause memory loss and confusion (Mullin, 2021).  Research into the causes of these effects should be investigated, as well as their long-term implications on the mental health of patients.  

For those not working on the frontline, lockdown and isolation may also increase anxiety and depression. Lockdowns have limited people’s ability to have a daily routine and access services needed for wellbeing such as gyms and community centres. Due to pre-existing inequalities, the impact of COVID-19 on mental health will be worse for already disadvantaged groups. Researchers should therefore not only seek to understand the impacts of the pandemic on mental health but identify factors that make this impact worse. 

Longitudinal studies could be carried out to measure the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 and inform mental health treatment.  

Lockdown measures put in place during COVID-19 will have severely disrupted and damaged child development. With tens of thousands of children missing school and unequal access to online schooling, it is likely that intellectual development has been impacted. In addition,  children have been missing out on social opportunities, which are critical for development.  The first 2 years of a child’s life are critical for secure attachment according to Bowlby (Health Research Funding, n.d.) and according to recent neuroscience studies may be associated with increased brain plasticity (Cioni & Sgandurra, 2013). With the pandemic lasting over 18 months, thousands of babies will have been impacted perhaps irreversibly.  Babies born just before or during the pandemic will have had little interaction with anyone outside of their families, which might increase stranger anxiety and lead to separation issues. In addition, not being exposed to other children in nursery and other settings limit the child’s ability to develop social skills and language development (Schwarz, 2003). One survey in English primary schools showed 96% of participants were concerned about the speech and language development of the pupils aged 4-5 (Jeffreys, 2021). 

As lockdowns begin to ease and adults return to work in offices, these “covid babies” will experience time away from their parents for the first time, unless their parent was a key worker. How will this affect the mental wellbeing and development of children? As young children go back to school and are faced with more social situations, they may experience heightened anxiety or stress. This could negatively impact education and cause behavioural problems. With many children not having the experience of being around other children, 

they will not have built up schemas on appropriate behaviour. While setting up longitudinal studies to measure the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on development would be beneficial,  these studies will only show a correlation rather than directly measure cause and effect. It will also be very difficult to tell which factors affected development the most, simply labelling the impacts “COVID related” is too broad given the wide-sweeping changes to life the pandemic has caused. Some children may be impacted by the loss of education, while others may suffer from their parents working long shifts in front-line jobs.  

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people behave and may have valuable insights into what influences and motivates behaviour. Lockdown measures include social distancing and mask-wearing. While many people have followed the guidance, others have not. What motivates people to follow this guidance? Perhaps it is out of precaution and the desire not to get ill, or perhaps it is the desire to fit in and not be ostracised from society. Theories within social influence may be able to explain these behaviours. For example, maybe someone is more likely to wear a mask if they have a high internal locus of control (Goddard, 2012). Alternatively, people who do not adhere to government guidance may do so as a defence mechanism. One theory in the psychodynamic approach argues that people avoid uncomfortable situations (Widdowson, 2014). Therefore,  people may avoid taking steps to be protected from COVID-19 as this would force them to acknowledge the pandemic’s existence.  

Adorno’s authoritarian personality test (Duckitt, 2015) may also explain the variation in people’s adherence to COVID-19 guidance. This could work both in favour of people following the rules or against, depending on who they look up to for authority. In the US many anti-mask protesters were also Trump supporters (Rivers-Pitt, 2021), who had many authoritarian characteristics in his personality and leadership style, as well as being a covid sceptic. Psychological researchers could respond by setting up similar scenarios to those presented in COVID-19 to investigate these possible internal factors. A more extreme situation to consider is covid denial. This ideological extremism and conspiracy theory may be a product of information bubbles and echo chambers online. Especially with lockdowns,  people’s lives have been revolving around technology and connecting online. This gives people more opportunities to become involved in reinforcing information bubbles, leading to extreme views. Researchers should be asking how this catalysed shift online will influence people’s opinions, motivations, and emotions.  

COVID-19 has completely upheaved and changed the way millions of people live their lives and its effects will be felt for years to come. Now is a vital time for psychological researchers to explore the pandemic’s far-reaching effects. This should not only be in a clinical and wellbeing focus but also treated as a time to explore the nuances of behaviour. This worldwide natural experiment provides scope for the collection of rich data in all areas, not only through observation and self-report but also through the development of contemporary lab studies. By enhancing our understanding of the human mind and behaviour, we will be able to collectively produce some positive outcomes of this pandemic.  


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