Although each of us has experienced the Covid-19 pandemic differently—what is a mere inconvenience for some has been utter agony for others—underlying our unique experiences are shared cognitive tendencies that spring into action when we’re dealing with uncertainty and threat. In the early days, the overwhelming accessibility of terrible news stories and a frenzy of predictions quite often rendered escape from pandemic-related worries impossible.
As we try to cut through this thicket, questions about mind and behaviour proliferate. How much time should I be spending with pandemic-related content? Can I identify and overcome biased judgments about such things as the likelihood of dying from Covid-19? Are there helpful ways to get relief from pandemic-related concerns for a few hours?
Elements of the questions that policymakers and community leaders must address are similarly psychological (e.g. how can we maintain effective physical distancing during the summer months?). One might expect, then, that psychological science has had an important role in the pandemic response. Indeed, psychologists have acted swiftly to apply their expertise. Contributions have ranged from articles and blog posts discussing mental processes that may affect people’s perceptions of and well-being during the pandemic to fast-paced research, complete with pre-registered hypotheses and methodology. As of 9 June 2020, at least 305 manuscripts on the psychological dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic—most still officially unpublished—could be found on PsyArXiv, the field’s main pre-print server.
While psychologists’ efforts to mobilize have been commendable, some have raised concerns about what the field is capable of contributing. The targets of criticism have included public communications (e.g. op-eds), on-going research and the use of findings to inform policy. To keep up with the field’s swift engagement with the pandemic context, reactions from critics have likewise been speedy. Perhaps as a result, more valuable insights have sometimes been obscured by overgeneralized conclusions and recommendations.
Criticism of Psychology’s Response to Covid-19
In his 31 March article, “Don’t Trust the Psychologists on Coronavirus,” Stuart Ritchie sharply criticizes select psychologists’ early responses to Covid-19. He raises concerns that pieces by David DeSteno and Gerd Gigerenzer among others downplayed the threat of the disease, while drawing tenuous connections between research findings and what they saw as errant risk assessment on the part of the general population. Ritchie identifies the following passage from DeSteno as one instance of mischaracterized threat:
Certain quarantine or monitoring policies can make great sense when the threat is real and the policies are based on accurate data. But the facts on the ground, as opposed to the fear in the air, don’t warrant such actions. For most of us, the seasonal flu, which has killed as many as 25,000 people in the United States in just a few months, presents a much greater threat than does the coronavirus.
Although Ritchie mainly targets instances of what he sees as inappropriate assessments of threat, the larger issue is the expression of views in areas outside the realm of psychologists’ expertise, such as epidemiology and public health. This tendency, known as epistemic trespassing, has also been observed and criticized in other fields during this pandemic.
Another major point in Ritchie’s piece is that psychologists should, “avoid over-stretching results from their small-scale studies to new, dissimilar situations.” The uniqueness and complexity of the current situation suggests significant uncertainty regarding the degree to which psychological research can be generalized to inform understanding and action. This issue is not unique to the Covid-19 context—concern about a widespread tendency to exaggerate the generalizability of psychological research has recently been a source of significant debate. However, over-extending the usefulness of research findings could be a bigger problem in the pandemic context, with lives at stake.
Critics have also taken issue with efforts to inform Covid-19 policy using social and behavioural science. The most prominent target, a journal article recently published in Nature Human Behaviour, includes contributions from diverse scholars, including Jay Van Bavel and Robb Willer. It draws connections between research across disparate domains (e.g. stress and coping, threat perception) and features of the pandemic context. The authors argue that, “because the crisis requires large-scale behaviour change and places significant psychological burdens on individuals, insights from the social and behavioural sciences can be used to help align human behaviour with the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health experts.”
In an as yet unpublished commentary critical of the article, Hans IJzerman and colleagues write that they “are concerned to see social and behavioural scientists making confident claims about the utility of scientific findings for solving COVID-19 problems without regard for whether those findings” meet stringent criteria for application.
An article by Cathleen O’Grady, however, argues that “For behavioral science, there’s no consensus on what evidence is good enough to act on, how much weight to put on your uncertainty, and how much uncertainty to communicate. Striking the balance, says Van Bavel, is an ‘existential question’ for scientists. ‘And I don’t know how to solve it.’”
There is therefore disagreement about what psychologists ought to do. Some believe that psychologists must err on the side of applying and disseminating their research—that it could even be dangerous to hold back. As Van Bavel puts it, “we don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Others believe that much more development is needed before psychology will be ready to contribute to a pandemic response. IJzerman and colleagues, for example, argue that the field doesn’t currently meet criteria for crisis-readiness and should not be taking a leading role in advising on life-and-death situations. Neil Lewis Jr. suggests that psychologists should, for the time being, put their theory and research aside and instead ask those on the front-line where they can be of practical service. Finally, according to Ritchie, “decision-makers should, before using psychology research as the basis for policy, know just how weak and contentious so much of it is. And everyone else should stay at home, wash their hands—and beware psychologists bearing advice.”
Clarity Through Uncertainty?
What can be done with the seemingly polarized views among proponents and critics of psychology’s role in the pandemic response? Fortunately, there may be some common ground on which to build. There is at least some agreement, for instance, that there are places where psychology is needed, such as clinical psychology and adjacent practice. As Lewis notes in his critique, “when I say ‘psychologist,’ … I am not referring to the clinicians and other therapists that most people in the general public think of when hearing that term. The work of clinicians is highly essential at this moment; it is urgently needed to get us through this pandemic.”
Thus, on the one hand, critics argue that psychology is not ready to take a leading role in understanding and responding to the Covid-19 crisis. On the other, they acknowledge that the work of clinicians is essential. However, little attention has been devoted to the grey area between these extremes, in which psychology is neither hastily imposed on the front line, nor provides essential mental health services. Within this ill-defined space, proponents and critics might agree that some cautious psychology-based responses, while perhaps not essential, could prove valuable.
Some headway might be made towards distinguishing reasonable from futile or potentially harmful contributions by considering the uncertainty at play in two broad domains: (a) psychological science and (b) the pandemic context.
The first area of uncertainty concerns psychological science. On-going debate in psychology suggests that it’s wise to err on the side of assuming uncertainty. As the replication crisis has shown, some findings previously assumed to reflect reality have not been reproducible. The difficulty of generalizing from research findings to the messy real world adds further uncertainty, even under normal circumstances.
The second area of uncertainty concerns the pandemic. Psychology can contribute most effectively where there is a relatively clear understanding of the problem that needs to be addressed. However, there are many aspects of the pandemic in which psychologists lack proficiency, so they must depend on experts from other fields. Furthermore, the current pace of change may quickly render some responses obsolete—particularly work that is necessarily slow, such as research initiatives to address pandemic-related questions. When one must depend on the expertise of others in a rapidly changing and sometimes unpredictable context, erring on the side of uncertainty may be preferable.
When these two dimensions are considered together, they form a simple matrix comprising four quadrants, which can be used to structure the kinds of roles that might be fitting for psychologists.
Quadrant 1. Psychologists have the clearest role to play where there is relative certainly about the problem and the science. Much of the evidence-based work done in clinical settings fits into this quadrant. This may be part of the reason that some who have been critical of psychology’s response to Covid-19 do not critique clinical psychology and adjacent practice. Clinicians are, of course, not immune from drawing problematic inferences from psychological science or the pandemic context. The further any psychologist moves from Quadrant 1, the more hesitant she should be about her work.
Other work fits here too. For example, psychologists might inform the public or policymakers (e.g. through op-eds, blog posts, interviews and direct consultation) about psychological science that is both well-established and addresses pervasive secondary consequences of the pandemic, such as sleep issues, feelings of uncertainty and experiences of stress. It’s important, however, not to confuse transmission of information from the field to the public with explanations for, and advice regarding, people’s individual experiences—the latter can be tremendously uncertain territory.
Quadrant 2. There may be a small role for psychologists in uncertain pandemic territory when there is solid scientific footing and when situational unknowns have been fully acknowledged. This requires significant caution about utilizing the science. It doesn’t make much sense to stage interventions or conduct research in this territory. However, there’s no reason not to write an op-ed or blog post that addresses well-established mental processes, such as some heuristics and biases, known to be tied to perceptions of risk. To do so effectively, it will often be necessary to avoid lofty claims in areas where expertise is lacking and express an appropriate degree of uncertainty when speculating about possible applications.
There is a public appetite for psychological content. From newspapers to digital magazines, coverage of the human elements of the Covid-19 pandemic is pervasive. Areo and Aeon, for example, both devote specific sections to psychology. The need for psychological content will be filled regardless of whether psychologists do it. Those with the right training should most often be the ones communicating the science, such that error and overgeneralization can be minimized.
Quadrant 3. There are many things we don’t know about how the pandemic is affecting the general public’s mental processes and behaviour. Psychologists want to answer these questions. Research may be most appropriate when it sits in Quadrant 3—i.e. the work seeks to reduce uncertainty about the human response to a known feature of the pandemic. For example, it’s evident that people have used various types of moral appeals on social media to promote compliance with physical distancing measures. But the relative effectiveness of such appeals remains uncertain. Researchers have been examining issues like this since the early days of the pandemic response.
Of course, the research process ought to be slow and incremental—it takes time to get clear and generalizable answers. That means the work that’s currently being done probably won’t, and arguably shouldn’t, contribute to the current pandemic response. It’s a mistake to assume that on-going research will have an immediate impact, and it’s generally inappropriate to hasten the research process for that purpose.
Quadrant 4. When the psychological science is relatively uncertain and it’s unclear what’s going on in the pandemic context, psychologists should avoid intervention, public communication and research to address pandemic questions. In this area, psychology can do more harm than good, by addressing the wrong questions, communicating irrelevancies or wasting resources.
Some of the advice offered in interviews, op-eds and blog posts can very easily slide into this territory. For example, sweeping recommendations to the public that they can reduce their anxiety by avoiding tracking statistics and news stories about Covid-19 fall into this quadrant. This is because there is almost total uncertainty about whether such advice could be beneficial or harmful to specific people, and such advice does not take into account the full range of the costs and benefits of receiving pandemic-relevant information—many of which are unknown.
This matrix is intended as a heuristic—for the sake of practicality, there’s much it leaves out. For example, the consequences of work that fits into each quadrant range in seriousness. Major gains can be made through evidence-based clinical work (Quadrant 1), and serious harms may result from large scale public interventions based on shaky science (Quadrant 4). By comparison, blog posts or op-eds fitting into Quadrants 1 and 4, respectively, probably won’t have much of an impact.
My hope is that this article will advance constructive debate and spur new thinking about psychology’s contribution in the time of Covid-19. Ultimately, however, it’s up to individual psychologists to consider whether the benefits of their pursuits will ultimately outweigh the costs.