Dr. Gordon Asmundson is tracking emotional and behavioural responses to COVID-19, which change rapidly, just like the science itself.
When Dr. Gordon Asmundson wrote an endorsement for The Psychology of Pandemics, a new book by his long-time colleague Dr. Steven Taylor in 2019, he described it as “a must-read for researchers, scholars, health-care professionals, and policy makers who may be involved in managing the public in the face of a pandemic threat.” Little did he know just how prophetic those words would turn out to be. Or that in a few short months, a virus that we now know as COVID-19 would become the singular focus of his work.
That book, and Asmundson and Taylor’s shared, deep knowledge about health anxieties built over 20 years of collaboration, meant that the two collaborators were able to pull together a grant application in less than a week that garnered $400,000 in Rapid Research Funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). “We had some good ideas stemming from our previous work, and from some of the things Steve predicted in his book,” says Asmundson, a psychology professor at the University of Regina. “Between the two of us, we were well positioned to hit the ground running.”
NEW KNOWLEDGE IN REAL TIME
Since February 2020, Asmundson, Taylor, and their team have been running the academic equivalent of an ultramarathon. Asmundson estimates that he’s published close to 30 papers, when the average in academia and clinical psychology, he says, is closer to two or three a year. Those publications are based on rigorous science and draw upon the wealth of data they’ve generated through four waves of pandemic-related surveys involving 7,000 Canadians and Americans.
“Because the science about the virus is changing so rapidly, the pandemic and our emotional responses to it are also dynamic,” says Asmundson. “So we have to stay on top of that and put out the research. We don’t have the luxury of waiting three or four months to write it up.”
Of the wealth of new information he and Taylor are generating and sharing via their coronaphobia.org website (developed with support from the U of R and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation), Asmundson is particularly gratified by the COVID Stress Scales they developed as a tool for researchers and clinicians to use with patients. The five interrelated scales correspond with the complex constellation of five emotional responses and behaviours the pair has labelled COVID Stress Syndrome—a condition that up to 16 per cent of the North American population may be experiencing to such a degree that it impairs their ability to function normally. Their finding paints a far more nuanced picture of people’s distress around viruses.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, where you develop a scale and within months it’s being used so widely,” says Asmundson. “There are already a number of publications coming out from other researchers who are using it. It’s gratifying that work that we hoped would have an impact has taken off and has the potential to inform our understanding on a global scale.”
Asmundson’s colleague, Taylor—a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia—describes their working relationship as an easy collaboration. “It’s effortless. Gord has a well-earned reputation as a prominent researcher who works well in collaborative settings, which is a talent that not all researchers have.” That includes not sweating the small stuff, says Taylor, who coined the term COVID Stress Syndrome. “I’ve worked with other colleagues where we could have spent weeks fussing around over the title. With Gord, it was, ‘I like it. Let’s use it.’”
TAILORING THE MESSAGE
The most recent paper by Asmundson and Taylor explores what makes the small but vocal minority of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers tick. The finding that their “you’re not the boss of me” behaviour is driven by a trait called psychological reactance is borne out in other research.
“Our public health messaging needs to be delivered in a way that gets the resistors on board,” says Asmundson. Their paper suggests communications strategies could be built around the non-threatening “nudge” borrowed from behavioural economics, or by emphasizing that wearing a mask is a personal choice.
“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the information and knowledge we’re contributing now can help us be better prepared.”
Asmundson is concerned that there aren’t more psychologists—experts in understanding people’s emotions and behaviours—at the table nationally and provincially in pandemic management. “Wash your hands, keep your distance, stay home, wear a mask, those are all behavioural actions, right? So controlling the pandemic is largely based on modifying attitudes and behaviours.”
WHAT WE'LL LEARN FROM THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
“The fact that we’re wrestling with so many of the same issues that arose during the 1918 pandemic—anti-mask attitudes, anti-vaccination attitudes, panic buying, conspiracy theories—suggests we didn’t learn all the lessons we could have about the psychology of pandemics.”
Still, Asmundson is hopeful that we can do better when we face the next pandemic. It’s easier to share information more widely today, plus the work he and Taylor have done provides a more nuanced understanding of the psychology behind people’s attitudes and behaviours.
“There’s going to be another pandemic, and it’s probably not going to be far away,” says Asmundson. “If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the information and knowledge we’re contributing now can help us be better prepared.”