Science
Photo by Reyer Boxem

Pontus Leander leads worldwide corona survey

How much are we prepared to sacrifice?

When behavioural psychologist Pontus Leander saw the corona storm coming, he realised that he needed to do something. He is heading up a worldwide survey into people’s emotions and motivations around the pandemic. Because if we’re going to stop this thing, we need knowledge.


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

7 April om 15:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 April 2020
om 16:33 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

April 7 at 15:59 PM.
Last modified on April 7, 2020
at 16:33 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

Pontus Leander is dead tired. He’s been working sixteen hours a day these last weeks and sleeping way too little. That’s not just because his three small children are desperately trying to get attention, or because he suddenly has to teach his courses in behavioural psychology online. 

Mostly, it’s because of the huge, unusual operation that has been ramping up in the last two weeks: a worldwide research project, called PsyCorona, into the mental and behavioural consequences of the coronavirus while it spreads. To make it work, he doesn’t just need a hundred or a thousand respondents, he needs tens of thousands of them. From all over the world.

Human motivation

It all started a couple of weeks ago. Leander and his PhD students were doing a small-scale study. Nothing special. ‘We were like everybody else’, he says. ‘We saw this storm coming on the horizon, but we didn’t make the connection that it was going to strike us. But then, three weeks ago, it suddenly became clear: not only should we run this study in the context of COVID-19, but if we’re going to accomplish anything to benefit society, we’re going to have to do it on a scale we’ve never even imagined.’

We have to do this study on a scale we’ve never even imagined

Leander studies human motivation and what happens when goals and needs become thwarted or blocked. Do people become aggressive, or violent? Are they still willing to follow social norms? What makes them react one way or another? Usually, he focuses on gun violence and mass shootings, so he’s good at setting up rapid response surveys whenever a situation arises. 

That’s why he set up a small study after the ban on handshakes in the Netherlands, to find out if fear or for example certain attitudes towards immigrants or the government, could predict people’s willingness to self-isolate. 

‘But we quickly realised that the early version could only achieve something in an academic sense’, he says. That was not enough. He wanted to, needed to, contribute something real.

Corona fatigue

Flattening the curve, he says, is a behavioural science problem at heart. Virologists can search for vaccines, epidemiologists can make projections, but you need behavioural psychologists to know if people will not only follow the rules of self-containment but will continue to follow them. 

‘Everyone can agree to engage in certain behaviours when a crisis is first happening, when we’re all scared and excited; when we’re all in it together and there’s great solidarity’, Leander says. ‘But there are projections that this is going to last for months; up to a year and a half, depending on the success of these containment policies and people’s willingness to follow such advice.’

Leander believes that corona fatigue will set in more quickly than we realise. Especially in societies that value freedom. First the question was: how many lives are we willing to sacrifice in order to protect the economy? ‘But that might shift to how much freedom are individuals willing to sacrifice in order to protect the lives of people they don’t even know’, he says. ‘And that’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what motivates us at PsyCorona.’

Predictions

It’s possible, of course, that the whole thing will – sort of – blow over. ‘Then our operation will fail. Which would be a good thing.’ 

But then there’s the predictions recently presented for the US. ‘The numbers of deaths in the worst-case scenarios are staggering and terrifying’, Leander says. ‘If we fail to defeat the spread of the virus by self-isolation, do we then turn to a different approach and lose individual freedom and institutional rights? Or do we prioritise those rights and accept that a pandemic is part of life, and that losing loved ones is the price we have to pay for that?’

This virus doesn’t care what we want or what’s polite

Leander refuses to consider that, he says. He wants to do his part to stop that from happening by doing what he does best: studying human emotions.

To beat this thing, he says, we need to know what people are thinking and what they believe to be true, because that will drive their behaviour. In a society where people don’t trust the government, you may have a problem when that government says they have plans to curtail people’s freedom for a while. In a society that values transparency and citizens making informed decisions, you might have a different issue. Too much information might confuse people. And before you know it, they’re out on the streets because they think ‘I feel fine, so I am fine’.

‘What we’re up against is something that doesn’t care what we think, what we want, or what’s polite, appropriate, what’s human. It’s simply going to spread. That is the cold, dangerous reality. That is the extraordinary task for each of us as individuals to cope with, to understand, and to wrap our lives around.’

Photo Reyer Boxem

Underbelly

That is why he’s also looking at the underbelly of society. ‘Things we don’t talk about in polite society, because these needs and attitudes might matter for understanding why the virus spreads or why it doesn’t; where and when the virus is likely to slow down.’

He needs information at an individual level, but also at a societal level. ‘So we can understand what we share as human beings everywhere. What needs and concerns drive us away from being able to protect ourselves and our community. Once we can identify that, the solution could be anything.’

A month in lockdown is safe, but unsustainable

He can’t do it alone. For his project to succeed, Leander is going to need a staggering number of people from all over the world, each of them willing to share information about their emotional state, about the information they are receiving, their willingness to follow guidelines and self-isolate, and much more. He also needs at least some of these people to participate in follow-up surveys, every week.

Different countries

The small team that started in Groningen has now scaled up to a hundred scientists in different countries that can each maximise the response in their own society. Leander joined forces with the New York University in Abu Dhabi (NYU-AD). They’ve set up a website where people can take a twenty-minute survey and where the researchers will post information and outcomes as soon as possible. 

‘We are hoping to do that in a couple of weeks, not months. Even if that means that it’s not perfect and we will have to revise it’, says Leander. 

Very soon, he hopes to be able to add virus tracking data. At this moment, only a handful of countries are doing any intensive testing, so it is hard to predict where COVID-19 will be surging a week from now. ‘But if people know it’s coming, they can adjust their behaviour dynamically, instead of being completely locked down for a month, which is safe, but unsustainable.’ At the same time, the data will help him find out which people in which areas might be most successful in not getting infected. 

By a thread

Will he succeed? This weekend, the project was compromised. A data breach occurred that IT specialists had to fix right away, or the project was over and done with. ‘Luckily, my international collaborators at NYU-AD stepped in and took over the survey’, Leander says. ‘If it weren’t for them, this project would have failed.’

This entire operation is based on sheer force of will

Now everything is up and running again, even though Leander is still shaky because of the stress. ‘This entire operation has been floating one metre above reality’, Leander says. ‘It’s based on the sheer force of will of the people involved. We’re doing what we can with string and duct tape to keep it going, but the house of cards can simply collapse at any time and then it’s over.’

A little funding would be nice, just so the main researchers can take it easy and maybe get some sleep. But he wants to do it. He needs to do it. ‘We want to do some good for people who are in danger now, or six months from now, to provide real-time virus tracking and real-time advice.’

They’ve already had 15,000 responses, and the number keeps climbing. ‘Which is what I hoped for.’ 

Do you want to contribute to the PsyCorona study? You can take the survey at PsyCorona.org

Nederlands