ASU psychology department receives NSF funding to study behavioral effects of COVID-19

July 9, 2020

Scientists worldwide are working overtime to understand the myriad impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Arizona State University Department of Psychology was recently awarded three Rapid Response Research grants from the National Science Foundation to study how the pandemic affects behavior. Psychology Department receives NSF funding to study behavioral effects of COVID-19 Psychology department receives NSF funding to study behavioral effects of COVID-19. Photo: Max Bender, Download Full Image

The impact of emotional coping strategies on health behaviors

The pandemic has introduced or exacerbated a wide range of stressors in people’s lives. Beyond fear of the coronavirus itself, fallout from the pandemic includes career challenges and unemployment, loneliness, strain on relationships and finances, and new demands from educating children at home to finding scarce household supplies. Many common methods of stress relief, such as socializing with other people, spending time at the gym or spa, and enjoying an evening’s entertainment outside the home, are now either prohibited or virtual.

“What is really striking about this pandemic, from a psychological standpoint, is that the entire country is facing a common stressor with huge impact on all of our lives,” said Michelle “Lani” Shiota, associate professor of psychology. “At the same time, there is this set of new, unfamiliar behaviors that we all need to engage in to protect our individual and community health, such as wearing masks and giving ourselves and others a lot of personal space.”

Shiota received an NSF RAPID Response Grant to study how people are coping with pandemic-related stress, and to ask whether the specific coping strategies people use predict their hygiene and social distancing behaviors as well as their psychological well-being. For example, prior research suggests that finding “silver linings” in stressful or unpleasant situations can help improve mental health, but are people who often use this coping strategy also more likely to wear a mask outside the home?

“Our emotions – and the way we regulate them – are not isolated from our actions in the world,” Shiota said. “The techniques we use to cope with stress likely have repercussions for how we understand and think about the situation, how careful we are in protecting our own health, how we relate to other people. There’s a lot of good evidence on the effects of different coping strategies for emotional well-being, but we know way less about implications for behavior under pressure.”  

The behavioral immune system and prejudices

The human body’s immune system fights off pathogens, which can cause infectious diseases like COVID-19. People also have what scientists call a “behavioral immune system,” which includes the emotion of disgust and behaviors such as physical distancing. The behavioral immune system is designed to help people avoid becoming infected in the first place. When the system misfires, disgust-linked prejudices toward groups like unfamiliar foreigners, people with obesity or gay men, can result.

Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology; Michael Varnum, associate professor of psychology; and D. Vaughn Becker, associate professor of human systems engineering, received a RAPID Response Grant to study how the pandemic affects prejudices that arise from the behavioral immune system.

“As COVID-19 spreads, activating the behavioral immune system and its associated prejudices, we will be able to test a wide range of ideas, including new hypotheses about how these prejudices affect the well-being and health-relevant decision making of members of groups targeted by these prejudices,” Neuberg said. 

The funding will allow the research team to investigate how the current pandemic may shape the spread and prominence of different prejudices, cultural ideologies and policy preferences linked to disease avoidance.

“Because such outbreaks can affect prejudices, values, and policy preferences — each of which have broad economic and social impacts — we expect this work will be of interest not only to scientists, but also to governments, institutions, corporations, and ordinary people as they seek to respond and adapt to this and other crises,” Varnum said. 

How emotions affect decision-making

Emotions profoundly affect how people make decisions and what they remember. People experiencing stress might struggle to resist temptations, like sticking to a diet during “quaranbaking.”

Psychology graduate student Blake Elliott — along with Samuel McClure, associate professor of psychology; Gene Brewer, associate professor of psychology; and Kimberlee D’Ardenne, research assistant professor — was awarded an NSF RAPID Response Grant to measure how people’s emotional state during the COVID-19 pandemic alters how they make decisions. The collaborative project will also examine whether brain anatomy predicts changes in decision-making as a result of the emotional impact of pandemic.

“We want to know if brain functional responses and connection patterns predict how an individual’s emotional state affects their decisions,” Elliot said. “The pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to study how emotions affect behavior.”

The project is based on Elliot’s dissertation research, which includes neuroimaging data and measures of impulsivity, memory formation and decision-making that were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. The NSF RAPID funding will let Elliot and the research team collect updated impulsivity, decision-making and memory formation measures. They will then examine how they change as a result of the pandemic and whether brain anatomy predicts any changes.

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


ASU launches bilingual chatbot to reach parents who want to go to college

July 9, 2020

Pursuing higher education when you’re raising children can come with significant financial and logistical barriers. But the upcoming expansion of an Arizona State University chatbot hopes to make higher education easier for any parent to access.

On July 8, Imaginable Futures — a venture of the Omidyar Group — and Lumina Foundation, along with a group of leading partner organizations, announced that ASU earned a $50,000 grant to expand the Sunny chatbot to reach parents and to offer help in Spanish for the first time. ASU was one of 15 grantees who were selected from 300 applicants for funding to support “accelerating the success of student parents.” A young woman poses with her parents in her graduation regalia at the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program graduation at ASU From left: Cesar Arevalo, ASU grad Jackelyne Arevalo and Delia Acosta at the 2019 spring Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program graduation celebration. Download Full Image

Sunny launched in 2018 and has reached more than 36,000 students, answering questions about admissions deadlines, move-in, meal plans and other frequently asked questions of incoming Sun Devils. 

ASU Assistant Vice President for Outreach Lorenzo Chavez said the new initiative embodies ASU’s charter to reach all students.

ASU’s community outreach has always involved parents in supporting their kids’ journeys to higher education. But education should also be accessible for parents of any age,” Chavez said. “We are thankful to be Rise Prize recipients so that we can build on the infrastructure that Arizona State University and our partners have built to reach families and empower communities with access to education.”

There are currently about 11,000 parenting students attending ASU on all campuses and online. About 68% of them are Pell grant eligible. Nationally, more than 1 in 5 college students are parents. These students are likely to be older, take more time to graduate, have less time for being involved on campus and are more likely to need child care, financial aid and flexible class schedules. 

The new chatbot, which Chavez estimates will launch in early 2021, will be informed by both a student-parent focus group as well as feedback received from parents who have participated in ASU’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, which for the last 35 years has provided college preparation and bilingual mentorship to hundreds of student-parent teams in Arizona. 

Marcela Lopez, executive director for ASU Outreach, said that a byproduct of bringing college preparatory resources to Arizona children has been that it has also inspired their parents. More than 5,000 Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program parents have voiced an interest in postsecondary education. 

One of those parents was Maria Ramirez, who participated in the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program with both her daughters, Elizabeth and Staphany Ramirez. Maria Ramirez said she was inspired to go to college “for a better career and to inspire both of my daughters.” She started taking classes at Maricopa County Community College but didn’t have enough information about scholarships or how to pay for tuition. Once she had that information, it turned out that she qualified for a scholarship for single mothers. 

“I've always had the desire to become a teacher and have always valued the power of education,” said Maria Ramirez, who graduated from ASU with a degree in elementary education in 2018. “It is very important to educate yourself in order to have more opportunities for a better career.”

Both of Maria Ramirez’s daughters were first-generation college graduates from ASU who were extremely proud to see their mother graduate soon after.  

“My mom is one of the reasons I dedicate my time and energy in providing access to resources to students who are pursuing postsecondary institutions in both English and Spanish,” said Staphany Ramirez, who now works at Scottsdale Community College as an embedded high school adviser. “From personal experience I learned that everyone is deserving of the information in order to create an equitable and fair educational system.” 

Lopez said the barriers that Maria Ramirez cited are common.

“Often the questions we get at forums are parents having questions about their own education,” said Lopez, who went through the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program herself as a student. “We often hear, I’m interested in earning a degree or I have a degree in my home country but how do I do that here at ASU? They feel like this might be attainable for even (themselves).”

Lopez said the convenience of a chatbot is paramount for parents: having 24/7 answers about FAFSA, child care, parenting support groups on campus, parent-specific scholarships, career resources and more in their native language — without having to go anywhere or wait in a line. 

Part of the key to the expanded Sunny will be information, but it will also help build community. Similar to the artificial intelligence of the FAFSA chatbot Benji, Sunny will help to ensure that key information and resources reach students regarding opportunities specific to them, including parenting student support groups on campus. 

“It’s exciting because we’re already building on an existing platform. We are now able to extend that support to make it easier for people who are juggling competing priorities in their lives,” she said.  

The ability to meet students where they are is crucial also because the parenting student population is itself so diverse in terms of age, marital status, financial situation, language and more. 

“It’s an opportunity to look at nontraditional students. There’s no one category,” Lopez said. 

“We know they come with multiple challenges and are balancing all the aspects of their lives. For parents, their children are their priority. So how do we bring ASU assets directly to them? How do we make that accessible for them and in a format they are comfortable with?” 

The ASU Sunnybot student-parent expansion is a way to reach parents with the same opportunities they probably hope their own children can achieve. To learn more about Sunny and updates about its expansion, visit ASU Admissions.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services