Study predicts potential societal outcomes of COVID-19 pandemic
By Maanas Hemanth Oruganti
Nov. 12, 2020 10:18 p.m.
UCLA researchers are predicting the COVID-19 pandemic may cause societies to become more socially conservative but may not greatly hinder human progress, among other predictions.
Those are some of the ways evolutionary psychologists are predicting the COVID-19 pandemic will impact society. A group of 12 evolutionary psychologists published an article with eight other insights intended to guide research on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are so many interesting research questions that could be asked, that should be asked,” said Benjamin Seitz, a psychology graduate student and lead author of the article. “We all said, ‘How can we use our understanding of evolutionary theory and the things that we study to come up with predictions for what we think is going to happen during the (COVID-19) pandemic?’”
Seitz said the authors used evolutionary theory to generate testable predictions about social shifts. All predictions, including the prediction of gender norms becoming more traditional, were made based on evolutionary psychology theory and did not reflect any endorsements from the article’s authors, Seitz added.
Daniel Rosenfeld, a psychology graduate student, worked with 52 other researchers to produce another article that predicted which psychological phenomena the COVID-19 pandemic would shift and how research should practically adapt to changing circumstances.
Rosenfeld said the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a pathogen threat to humans. A lot of evolutionary psychology research focuses on how people respond to threats from a contagious pathogen, Rosenfeld added.
“Just like we have a physical immune system, we also have what psychologists call a behavioral immune system,” Rosenfeld said. “There are a lot of social psychological consequences of being afraid of catching a disease that can really affect things like our political ideologies.”
When people experience pathogen threat and their social norms are upended, they tend to adopt more conservative social ideologies to create a sense of order, Rosenfeld said.
The article suggests COVID-19 could suppress symptoms in humans when it can most easily spread, increasing the likelihood that infected humans physically interact with others, benefitting the virus’ spread and replication.
Another insight suggested that familial obligations and layoffs affected women more than men during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may cause women may rely more on men to earn money and cause a conservative social shift.
Seitz said the COVID-19 pandemic could also impact the longevity of romantic relationships as casual dating poses greater risks of contracting COVID-19.
“People (will) probably (remain) in relationships longer than they’d like to because they know that the options are bleak,” Seitz said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also changing how psychological and sociological research is performed, researchers said.
“I think (the COVID-19 pandemic) has forced people like me to get inventive and try to push the boundaries of online (analogs) to the studies I used to do,” said Frank Kachanoff, a psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It really motivated me to learn about these other tools that I wasn’t using when I had the lab at my disposal.”
Kachanoff said his previous research relied on observations of groups of four to five people in a room completing tasks together, a method that could not be ethically conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kachanoff that added much of his work continues to focus on issues surrounding intergroup relations, many of which have existed without the influence of COVD-19.
Kachanoff was the lead author of another article that included results from three different studies exploring realistic and symbolic threats COVID-19 poses.
“A realistic threat is a very tangible threat to the group, either to our physical well-being, our health or the things we need to survive,” Kachanoff said. “(When) we see threats to the core values that define us. … Those types of threats are called symbolic threats.”
The article concluded that threat perception could predict an individual’s support of socially restrictive behavior. Realistic threat perception predicted individuals would likely support such behaviors. Symbolic threat perception predicted the opposite.
While other work has shown ideology influences an individual’s behavior, the studies’ results indicate the interaction between ideology and behavior is complex, Kachanoff said. Even after accounting for participants’ ideologies, threat perception still predicted an individual’s behavior, he added.
Rosenfeld said people often perceive the leaders of U.S. political parties as drivers of the COVID-19 pandemic’s politicization over time, but many studies found trends from surveys in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic that conservatives had already perceived COVID-19 as a lesser threat than liberals did.
“Political ideology is an interesting (concept) in that it’s both tied to our sense of morality and also tied to our sense of social identity,” Rosenfeld said. “You have these pressures from morality and social identity and in-group dynamics that can really polarize people depending on the norms that emerge within each camp.”
Kachanoff said he believes that while ideological groups in the U.S. debate which threat is greater, individuals also experience a similar debate internally when deciding to follow restrictive behaviors like social distancing.
“The important (thing) to keep in mind is that both threats correlate with each other,” Kachanoff said. “When we see the divide in our country, it’s often tempting to think about the struggles between people, but we also have to think about just internally, we can have our own struggles.”