TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A psychology researcher at The University of Alabama was awarded a federal grant to study how people’s emotions influence their response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Right now there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in day-to-day life around the globe,” said Dr. Philip Gable, associate professor of psychology. “We are interested in the role uncertainty plays in how people feel and behave, and we are especially interested to see how non-conscious emotions toward avoiding the virus influence health behaviors.”
Gable is leading the project awarded nearly $65,000 under the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research funding program, which is set up to review and fund projects with an urgent need to gather data during or right after emergency events and natural disasters.
The research at UA is part of NSF’s effort to quickly start non-medical, non-clinical-care research that can be used immediately to explore how to model and understand the spread of COVID-19, to inform and educate about the science of virus transmission and prevention, and to encourage the development of processes and actions to address this global challenge.
The spreading COVID-19 in the United States creates a social psychological problem of a scale never encountered in modern times. This time-critical research project investigates how peoples’ feelings of uncertainty impact emotional and motivational behaviors to avoid the virus, even when people may be unaware of how they feel and act. Emotion-based responses are thought to be amplified because of the uncertainty involved in a contagion spread, Gable said.
Although fear can be a powerful motivator of behavior to help people accept the severe disruptions in daily life, there are other motivators, such as social responsibility or conforming to social norms that may also help, he said.
To see how emotions are affecting behavior during the pandemic, the project will develop a smart phone application that senses when participants move toward or away from images of potential contaminants. It will assess non-conscious motivations behind avoiding situations with potential for virus transmission and how those motivations promote positive behavior such as hand-washing and physical distancing. The app will be available on Google Play in early April.
The project will also investigate regional differences of infection rates across the country to understand how the impact of the virus’s spread across the country influences people’s feelings and actions. Researchers will test participants’ behavior over the next nine months in order to capture peak and declining rates of the disease.
Dr. Raheem Paxton, associate professor in the UA College of Community Health Sciences, is serving as a statistics consultant.
The findings will be published and the anonymous data from the app will be publicly available.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.