Woman in red T-shirt looking at her laptop with hands on her forehead.

UA Researchers Examine Stress of Pandemic on Decision-Making

Woman in red T-shirt looking at her laptop with hands on her forehead.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Researchers at The University of Alabama were awarded a grant to see if the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic may include poor decision-making by those who experienced increased stress levels.

Dr. Laura Razzolini and Dr. Michael Price, professors of economics, finance and legal studies in the Culverhouse College of Business, were awarded more than $82,000 under the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research funding program, set up to review and fund projects with an urgent need to gather data during or right after emergency events and natural disasters.

This 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 consequences of virus transmission and prevention, and to encourage the development of processes and actions to address this global challenge.

Through national surveys given throughout the pandemic, the UA researchers will infer how the coronavirus changed perceived stress levels, mental well-being and economic decisions. The study builds off similar work started to investigate non-monetary costs during the recently completed construction project to replace an interstate bridge through downtown Birmingham, Alabama.

“We were going to go back and see what has changed among the population we surveyed during construction, but the pandemic changed things even more,” said Razzolini, also chair of the UA Department of Economics, Finance and Legal Studies.

“In that area, we can now compare stress induced by something normal such as traffic congestion and construction to stress induced by the pandemic, something that is not normal.”

The research will also help understand compliance with stay-at-home measures and trust placed in government and institutions, such as the media and public health organizations, as well as quantify a person’s willingness to sacrifice both money and life span to avoid contracting COVID-19.

Preliminary results from the survey of stress related to the interstate bridge replacement show stress worsens a person’s ability to make decisions, and this will result in long-term economic consequences.

“It might sound intuitive and obvious that stress leads to poor decision-making, but the relationship is hard to quantify,” Price said. “Stress can be related to a lot of other things in your environment that also affect your decision-making. Not all poor decision-making is the same.”

After completing a survey about the pandemic and self-reported stress levels, the study will ask participants to simulate economic tasks that lead to different amounts of real money paid out — up to $75 per participant. The tasks are designed to measure risk attitudes, preferences over different points in time, altruism and honesty. In the traffic study, for example, the researchers found stress made people less altruistic, unable to compare correctly money gained over different points in time in the future.

Other survey sections ask participants about their beliefs in the effectiveness of public health remedies for the pandemic along with their trust in institutions communicating those strategies as well as their compliance. The survey will also ask how much money a participant will pay to avoid this pandemic.

“When we think about health shocks or things such as a highway closure, there are costs and benefits we examine,” Price said. “What we are less likely to quantify is the impact on mental well-being and risks taken by individuals over time. We need to be prepared for future pandemics and other stressful events, so that policymakers can consider alternative steps that take into account impact on people and how they respond to stress.”


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328, adam.jones@ua.edu