Why Coming Up With Effective Interventions To Address COVID-19 Is So Hard

Article by Neil Lewis Jr.: “It has been hard to measure the effects of the novel coronavirus. Not only is COVID-19 far-reaching — it’s touched nearly every corner of the globe at this point — but its toll on society has also been devastating. It is responsible for the deaths of over 905,000 people around the world, and more than 190,000 people in the United States alone. The associated economic fallout has been crippling. In the U.S., more people lost their jobs in the first three months of the pandemic than in the first two years of the Great Recession. Yes, there are some signs the economy might be recovering, but the truth is, we’re just beginning to understand the pandemic’s full impact, and we don’t yet know what the virus has in store for us.

This is all complicated by the fact that we’re still figuring out how best to combat the pandemic. Without a vaccine readily available, it has been challenging to get people to engage in enough of the behaviors that can help slow the virus. Some policy makers have turned to social and behavioral scientists for guidance, which is encouraging because this doesn’t always happen. We’ve seen many universities ignore the warnings of behavioral scientists and reopen their campuses, only to have to quickly shut them back down.

But this has also meant that there are a lot of new studies to wade through. In the field of psychology alone, between Feb. 10 and Aug. 30, 541 papers about COVID-19 were uploaded to the field’s primary preprint server, PsyArXiv. With so much research to wade through, it’s hard to know what to trust — and I say that as someone who makes a living researching what types of interventions motivate people to change their behaviors.

As I tell my students, if you want to use behavioral science research to address real-world problems, you have to look very closely at the details. Often, a simple question like, “What research should policy makers and practitioners use to help combat the pandemic?” is surprisingly difficult to answer.

For starters, there are often key differences between the lab (or the people and situations some social scientists typically study as part of our day-to-day research) and the real world (or the people and situations policy-makers and practitioners have in mind when crafting interventions).

Take, for example, the fact that social scientists tend to study people from richer countries that are generally highly educated, industrialized, democratic and in the Western hemisphere. And some social scientific fields (e.g., psychologyfocus overwhelmingly on whiter, wealthier and more highly educated groups of people within those nations.

This is a major issue in the social sciences and something that researchers have been talking about for decades. But it’s important to mention now, too, as Black and brown people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus — they are dying at much higher rates than white people and working more of the lower-paying “essential” jobs that expose them to greater risks. Here you can start to see very real research limitations creep in: The people whose lives have been most adversely affected by the virus have largely been excluded from the studies that are supposed to help them. When samples and the methods used are not representative of the real world, it becomes very difficult to reach accurate and actionable conclusions….(More)”.