Baruch Professor Steven Young Receives National Science Foundation Grant to Study Social Distancing During Pandemics
October 15, 2020
Professor Steven Young, PhD, received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the impact of social distancing during pandemics and will examine how virtual socializing, using text messages and video chat platforms like Zoom or FaceTime, can help people feel connected to friends and family when direct social contact is discouraged.
Professor Young teaches in the psychology department at the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, and in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Basic and Applied Social Psychology, and Cognitive and Comparative Psychology doctoral program.
According to Professor Young, the NSF grant comes as the global Covid-19 pandemic continues to upend how people live, work, study, and interact.
Analyzing Social Distancing Behaviors
The research project claims to encourage people to engage in social distancing behaviors that prevent disease spread, while avoiding the psychological stress caused by feelings of loneliness. In addition, the project seeks to demonstrate how people can meet their need for social contact, while also staying safe and preventing disease spread.
Professor Young will carry out the research with a team of eight Baruch College undergraduate research assistants and two graduate students from CUNY’s Basic and Applied Social Psychology doctoral program, and his co-collaborator from the University of Southern Mississippi and a graduate student from the school. The grant-funded research, which extends through April 2021, involves online data collection from a large and diverse group of participants from across the U.S.
The Challenge: Competing Motives
Professor Young explained that the research project will examine the different motives that drive various human behaviors during a pandemic situation.
“Humans have a handful of ‘fundamental’ motives, which are purported to be evolutionary derived needs that support survival and general well-being. Two of these motives are affiliating with other people (i.e., having stable, rewarding, and mutually beneficial relationships with people and groups) and avoiding contagious illness,” explained Professor Young.
However, these two motives also require different behaviors. “Affiliation motives make us approach people and want close contact. Disease avoidance motives make us want to avoid people and socially isolate. As a result, under most circumstances, satisfying one of these needs comes at the expense of the other. This can have real consequences,” he added.
For example, highly social and extraverted people can spread disease and get others sick, while extreme isolation and social distance can lead to loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and other negative outcomes. Professor Young’s research will look at how people manage to balance these competing motives over the course of the pandemic.
The Impact of Technology-Enabled Socializing
The research also will look at whether people are able to use technology-mediated forms of socializing (Zoom, etc.) to feel socially connected without face-to-face contact with other people.
“We expect that the more people are able to virtually socialize, the less often they will engage in risky social behaviors like attending large, in-person gatherings. But, we expect this to be influenced by things like age, social media consumption, quality of internet connections, living in rural vs. urban environments, etc. because these factors likely change,” Professor Young said. For example, these factors change in terms of a person’s ability to use technology-based communication, familiarity and comfort with technology-based communication, ability to easily social distance, and beliefs about the severity of COVID-19.
At the end of the project, Professor Young and his collaborator hope to publish at least two research papers. One of the papers focuses on an analysis of a data set from a nationally representative sample that tracked participants over four weeks to examine how their disease avoidance and affiliation needs changed over time, and how this impacted their behaviors in terms of adhering to or violating CDC guidelines about in-person gatherings.
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