In mid-March, just before President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency, Stanford psychology professor Robb Willer posted a call to arms on Twitter, asking for suggestions on how the social and behavioral sciences could help to address the pandemic. “What ideas might we have to recommend? What research could we do?” he asked. “All ideas, half-baked or otherwise, are welcome!”
Given the importance of our social interactions to the spread of the pandemic, behavioral sciences should have a lot to tell us. So Willer got a large response, and the result was a huge team effort coordinated by Willer and New York University social psychology professor Jay van Bavel. The goal: to sum up all the best and most relevant research from psychology, sociology, public health, and other social sciences. Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour last week—a lightning-fast turnaround for academia—the resulting paper highlights research that addresses behavioral questions that have come up in the pandemic, from understanding cultural differences to minimizing scientific misinformation.
Different sections, each written by researchers with expertise in that particular field, summarize research on topics from social inequality to science communication and fake news. Responding to the crisis requires people to change their behavior, the paper’s authors argue, so we need to draw on behavioral research to “help align human behavior with the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health experts.”
But while Willer, van Bavel, and their colleagues were putting together their paper, another team of researchers put together their own, entirely opposite, call to arms: a plea, in the face of an avalanche of behavioral science research on COVID-19, for psychology researchers to have some humility. This paper—currently published online in draft format and seeding avid debates on social media—argues that much of psychological research is nowhere near the point of being ready to help in a crisis. Instead, it sketches out an “evidence readiness” framework to help people determine when the field will be.
So are the social sciences ready to help us navigate the pandemic? Evidently, experts disagree, and their scuffle is part of a broader debate about how much evidence we need before we act. The coronavirus crisis forces a tough, society-wide lesson on scientific uncertainty. And with such escalated stakes, how do we balance the potential harm of acting prematurely with the harm of not acting at all?
Leaning on the evidence
If humans didn’t insist on being quite so messily human, pandemic response would be much simpler. People would stay physically separated whenever possible; leaders would be proactive and responsive to evidence; our fight could be concentrated on the biomedical tools we so urgently need. The problem is that our maddening, imperfect humanity gets in the way at every turn, and getting around those imperfections demands that we understand the human behavior underlying them.
It’s also clear that we need to understand the differences between groups of people to get a handle on the pandemic. Speculation has been rampant about how cultural differences might influence what sort of responses are palatable. And some groups are suffering disproportionately: death rates are higher among African-American and Latinx communities in the US, while a large analysis from the UK found that black, minority ethnic, and poorer people are at higher risk of death—our social inequalities, housing, transport, and food systems all play a role in shaping the crisis. We can’t extricate people and our complicated human behavior and society from the pandemic: they are one and the same.
In their paper, Van Bavel, Willer and their group of behavioral research proponents point to studies from fields like public health, sociology and psychology. They cover work on cultural differences, social inequality, mental health, and more, pulling out suggestions for how the research could be useful for policymakers and community leaders.
Those recommendations are pretty intuitive. For effective communications, it could be helpful to lean on sources that carry weight in different communities, like religious leaders, they suggest. And public health messaging that emphasizes protecting others—rather than fixating on just protecting oneself—tends to be persuasive, the proponents argue.
But not everyone is convinced that it would necessarily be a good idea to act on the recommendations. “Many of the topics surveyed are relevant,” write psychologist Hans IJzerman and a team of critics in their draft. The team’s concern isn’t the relevance of the research; it’s how robust that research is. If there are critical flaws in the supporting data, then applying these lessons on a broad scale could be worse than useless—it could be actively harmful.
“I was pretty disappointed,” says Simine Vazire, a UC Davis psychology professor and one of the team of critics. In the introduction to their paper, van Bavel and the other proponents write that each section describes the quality of the evidence that it rests on. But there was nowhere near the level of evidence evaluation Vazire expected, she says. She points to a section on healthy mindsets, which suggests that with the right mindset, difficult experiences can lead to “stress-related growth“—and that mindsets can be changed with just short interventions.
“That literature is really flawed,” she says. “There are probably individuals who grow from stress, but it’s not the norm.” It’s an irresponsible thing to claim, she argues: “It could make people feel bad if they think most people grow from trauma and stress, and if they don’t—which is much, much more typical—that could add to their depression and anxiety.”
Sander van der Linden, a psychologist at Cambridge University and one of van Bavel’s co-authors, argues that the paper was cautious in its claims, taking care to phrase things using words that convey uncertainty, avoid direct prescriptions for policy, and point out where more research is needed. The paper is intended to function more as an opinion piece, he says, and less as a claim of what’s true and what’s false.