In addition to the effects of the virus itself, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on society, the global economy, and individuals’ lives and mental health. Researchers from around the world in the fields of psychology, health care, behavioral and social sciences, and neuroscience have been working to understand the nature and extent of these effects. Given that the virus spreads through interpersonal contact, containment measures have required adjustments of routine social behaviors. This has led to two notable issues for governance: first, the need to gain insight into people's attitudes, behaviors, and intentions in order for policy makers to develop effective strategies to mitigate disease spread. Second, the need to understand the psychological consequences of policies that restrict social and economic behaviors, such as stress and loneliness, that impact us as social beings.
The interconnected world-wide research community and technological possibilities for data collection and collaborative data analysis have enabled a rapid and coordinated improvement of the understanding of the psychological, social, and behavioral consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic across nations, cultures and continents. Such large-scale international research is beneficial in several ways: it can inform cross-national public policy by tracking and comparing the outcomes of national approaches, assess the well-being of various subgroups, and provide essential data to help prepare for future pandemics and other global disasters. The aim of this blog is to discuss the potential of scientific large-scale collaborations for research and society. More specifically, we describe how our COVIDiSTRESS project team was organized, how we collaborated, what we achieved, and where we are headed in the future.
The project started with a Facebook post by Dr. Andreas Lieberoth, the PI of the project, on March 20, 2020.
This post attracted the interest of many researchers who were in lockdown or near lockdown at the time, and were concerned about the future global situation. In one day, over 100 people joined the COVIDiSTRESS consortium.
An open dataset
The COVIDiSTRESS consortium combined their expertise in psychological science and neurocognition, survey design, and analysis to design a comprehensive survey, and translated it into 47 languages. The survey was disseminated in various parts of the world, through multiple local and national media campaigns. Data was collected from March 30 through May 30, 2020, with a total of 173,426 respondents from 179 countries on six continents. The consortium cleaned the data and made it publicly available on the OSF (https://osf.io/cjxua/?pid=z39us). A data descriptor is published in Scientific Data with detailed information about the dataset, how to use it, simple basic statistics, and a Shiny app to visualize the demographics of the sample and scores for several variables of interest (https://covidistress.france-bioinformatique.fr/). The time and effort put into the project by many of the members of the COVIDiSTRESS consortium resulted in multiple publications.
A representative paper
In a recent paper, “Stress and worry in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic: relationships to trust and compliance with preventive measures across 48 countries in the COVIDiSTRESS global survey,” published in Royal Society Open Science, we examined the relationship between stress, worry, trust in government efforts, and compliance with preventive measures using the COVIDiSTRESS dataset. First we demonstrate that compliance with preventive measures is negatively associated with the perceived stress, but positively associated with concern over COVID-19. Second, trust in government efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 is negatively associated with stress. Finally, concern over COVID-19 significantly predicts perceived stress.
These findings provide researchers and policy makers with useful insights for understanding psychological and behavioral responses to the pandemic across various countries. We argue that, both in the current and future pandemics, it is critical to consider how to address the issue of increased stress to improve people’s tendency to comply with preventive measures. Given that lower trust in government efforts was linked to perceived stress, governments should also employ measures to improve their transparency and objectiveness in employing guidelines and regulations to mitigate potential stress and foster greater compliance with preventive measures.
The Impact of COVIDiSTRESS
As the dataset is open-access, a number of additional papers have been published or are being prepared, including analyses in Mexico, Denmark, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Turkey. These national papers focus on local circumstances or specific issues such as how students or families cope with the initial COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020 or whether trust and social provisions mediate the relationships between pandemic-related variables and specific emotional, cognitive and behavioural outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other projects have used the dataset to investigate cross-national hypotheses, including a replication of Tversky and Kahneman’s (1981) Asian disease problem which demonstrated a larger framing effect during the pandemic than previous large-scale replications.
A study by Kowal et al., published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being, shed light on the relationship between demographic and psychological variables (the number of adults and children in a household, marital status, age, gender, education level, COVID-19 severity) and perceived stress. Kowal and colleagues demonstrated that certain categories of people may be more susceptible to the effects of stress during the pandemic (i.e., higher levels of stress were associated with younger age, being a woman, lower level of education, being single, staying with more children, and living in a country or area with a more severe COVID‐19 situation). The outcomes of this study are of great interest to mental health professionals as it highlights important relations between pandemic-related stress and demographic characteristics.
A few weeks before data collection ended, additional scales and questionnaires were added to the original COVIDiSTRESS survey with the aim of analysing the connection between the COVID-19 pandemic, war trauma reminders, perceived stress, loneliness, and PTSD in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The study identified positive correlations between war trauma reminders and perceived stress, while loneliness significantly mediated the relationship between PTSD symptoms and perceived stress. Even during the data collection, this study caught the attention of local psychiatrists and psychologists, who found it an important and valuable source of data for their work and clinical practice with people who suffer from PTSD and war trauma.
At the moment, several analyses based on the dataset are in progress, such as exploring the connection between COVID-19 related stress and residency status (whether those who live abroad are more stressed during pandemics than those living in their home countries). Another study explores the relationships between the Big Five personality traits, stress and loneliness, and the possible moderating role of isolation status and number of people living in the same place during the pandemic.
The availability of the large dataset also enables data-driven exploration of the relationship across psychological and behavioral responses to the pandemic. For example employing Bayesian general linear modeling (a statistical method to explore the most probable regression model that best predicts dependent variables of interest given a particular dataset), to examine the associations between the Big Five personality traits and compliance with preventive measures across different countries. The study reported how five personality traits differently predict the self-reported compliance and the perceived personal costs of compliance. The paper has been published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Our COVIDiSTRESS project has been mentioned on Twitter as one of the “largest #COVID19 survey [sic] that have collected data of tens of thousands of respondents around the globe” according to the Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention Supertracker Newsletter (@LukasLehner_, Oct 5, 2020, Twitter). Results of the study have impacted official Danish policy pertaining to COVID-19. Given that concerns are present both regarding the virus' spread but also the economy, the report recommends consideration that the effects of a restrictive measure on well-being may be more complex than simply interacting with virus-related concerns.
The COVIDiSTRESS Survey Database remains as a source of open access data for researchers throughout the world. Members of the COVIDiSTRESS consortium have continued to use the data for their independent studies, some of which are under review or in press at the moment. However, we welcome researchers outside the consortium to use our dataset for research purposes in the future (see e.g., Im & Chen, 2020 for use of dataset outside the consortium). The free access is the most important aspect of open science, and was promoted throughout the COVIDiSTRESS project.
Owing to the success of the first study, a follow-up is underway to collect information about the ongoing global effects of the pandemic led by Dr. Sara Vestergren. This study expands upon the first and includes information about how compliance and social norms regarding social distancing and other measures have evolved in different countries, primary and secondary stressors during the pandemic, moral values, misinformation about the coronavirus, uncertainty, attitudes about the vaccine, identities, emotions and emotion regulation, resilience and coping.
The follow-up survey aims to fill gaps left un- or underexplored in the previous survey. For example, more specific items in relation to stress and behaviours have been added. Importantly, there will be a strong focus on collecting data in developing countries from each continent, especially those with lower participation rates on the first survey. It is critical to collect data from these countries, especially as some countries severely impacted by COVID-19 are thus far projected to receive few, if any, vaccines. As the pandemic continues to impact us all, it is more important than ever to collect data from countries with different national experiences during the pandemic. Finally, the new study aims at exploring the concepts that were not part of the previous one, such as social identities, tolerance of uncertainty, and resilience. We hope that the new study will provide recommendations for healthcare professionals, government officials and policy analysts with regards to compliance to protective behaviours, vaccine hesitancy, misinformation/fake news prevention, and coping, along with providing colleagues around the world with useful data for further studies.