Liz Bonawitz & Jonathan Kominsky

Psychology Researchers Awarded Covid-19 Grant to Study Intervention Responses of U.S. Population

The coronavirus pandemic has set off a flurry of research activity not only in medicine, where the race for a vaccine has taken center stage, but also in other disciplines. Recently, two researchers from Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of Psychology were awarded a grant by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to study how the general U.S. population reacts to Covid-19-related interventions, and how these findings can be used to craft effective communications strategies during the current pandemic and future crises.

Associate Professor Elizabeth Bonawitz and Postdoctoral Associate Jonathan Kominsky were one of 62 individuals and teams to receive a SSRC Covid-19 Rapid-Response Grant, which are awarded to address the social, economic, cultural, psychological and political impact of Covid-19 in the U.S. and globally, as well as responses to the pandemic’s wide-ranging effects.

The project idea was Kominsky’s, who says that one of the key factors in compliance with costly and disruptive public-health and other public-policy interventions—such as those proposed or mandated during the pandemic—may be whether the general public regards the intervention as an overreaction or an appropriate response. With Bonawitz as his research supervisor, Kominsky will conduct four studies to understand the generalizable cognitive processes underlying judgments of overreaction, which he hopes will inform crisis-communication strategies now and in the future.

We sat down with Kominsky recently to learn more about the project.

These rapid-response grants are unique. What will the funds be used for, and what’s the timeline on these kinds of awards?
We received $4,500, which will be used for recruiting and paying research participants, and the whole study needs to be finished within 6 months of the start date, but we expect to finish it earlier. That’s definitely a feature of a rapid-response grant: We’re looking at a specific problem that needs an answer as soon as possible, and so that’s what the grant pays for.

What inspired this research project, and how is it different from others you’ve done?
What inspired it was a question that had been stuck in my head for months: I could see in the news and on social media how important it was to figure out how people decide whether something is an “overreaction,” because it seemed to affect how they responded to things like stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, and yet nobody else had studied it. It's different in that it is definitely the most directly applied project I’ve ever worked on. It has the potential to tell us something that could be put to use in public-health messaging weeks or even days after the project is finished.

The focus of this project is figuring out what people are really thinking about when they decide if something is an overreaction, an appropriate response, or not enough.

How many subjects will you use, how will you conduct these studies remotely, and what are the special challenges in doing research this way?
The total number of research subjects will be around 1,340, with 320 for each of the four main experiments, plus 60 more for a smaller experiment that will help us create the stimuli for one of the main experiments. All of the experiments will try to get a representative sample of participants from across the U.S. We’re conducting these studies using the online survey system Qualtrics and the recruitment system Prolific Academic. This is how a lot of research is done these days, even before the pandemic. Compared to running the study in person, we will probably get a more representative sample of the country by running it online. Prolific is specifically designed to help researchers recruit a sample that matches the demographics of the U.S. at large. It’s also much faster to run these studies online: You can get hundreds of participants in a couple of days, which would take weeks to do in person. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, we would probably run the study this way.

Would you go a little deeper into the project for us?
Back in April, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “If it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.” Shutting down travel, closing businesses, closing schools, mandating masks, we do all of these expensive, painful things, and if everything goes right the best outcome is that nothing bad happens. If that's the case, how can we figure out if those actions, versus others, were the right call or not? Even more important than that, how can we judge in advance if a response is reasonable or too much, and whether we should go along with it?

The focus of this project is figuring out what people are really thinking about when they decide if something is an overreaction, an appropriate response, or not enough. There are lot of different pieces of information that people could use, like whether the bad thing is likely or unlikely, how severe it would be if it happened, whether it can be stopped or only made less bad, and what people think the best-case and worst-case scenarios are. We don’t know which of these things matter and which ones don’t, and so the goal of this project is to figure out what needs to be really clear to convince people that these extreme measures really are worth the trouble. We’re also looking at hindsight: If the bad thing doesn’t happen, do people think it’s because the reaction worked, or do they think it was too much and there was nothing to worry about? This won’t be the last pandemic or major crisis humanity has to deal with, and so understanding how people look back at what happened is important, too, because it might affect how they respond next time.

Does your study account for the bifurcated media bubbles and political polarization that affect people’s interpretation of cause-and-effect in this pandemic—whether certain measures cause or prevent spikes in Covid cases?
Our study focuses on how you make sense of the information you have. It doesn’t deal with the fact that some folks are getting different information than other people are.

Final thoughts?
One of the bigger ideas behind this project is that people don’t just think about what actually happens; they also think about what could or should happen. I’ve studied this ability for years, and it shows up in all kinds of different cases, not just judgments of overreaction. And there’s another example of this ability that people should be aware of: regret, which is an emotion that exists because we can think about what could have happened differently. So, when it comes to deciding whether something is an overreaction, it’s worth remembering that the alternative might be regretting that we didn’t do enough.

Thank you for sitting down with us.
Thanks for your interest in our research.