People Who Need People Zoom: NSF Grant Supports Professor Steven Young’s Social Distancing Study

Steven Young (Photo courtesy of Young)

With the explosion in new coronavirus cases, the Centers for Disease Control, Anthony S. Fauci, and other epidemiologists are urging families and friends to consider virtual celebrations for the holidays. Staying separated may preserve our physical health, but the psychological effects of curtailed social contact are unknown. It’s also unclear how much virtual substitutes, such as Zoom and FaceTime, compensate for lost in-person interaction. 

A $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support Professor Steven Young’s (GC/Baruch, Psychology) research on the impact of social distancing during a pandemic. He will examine how virtual socializing, using text messages and video chat platforms, can help people feel connected to and family when direct social contact is discouraged. The grant funds research through April 2021. 

Young’s research team includes graduate students, Madeline Nickel and Ryan Tracy, from the Basic and Applied Psychology training area of The Graduate Center’s Psychology Ph.D. program who are helping to analyze data and prepare for additional data collection. They will also co-author manuscripts. 

“We collected data from a very large sample of participants over a month-long period, and wading through that large data set is time-consuming work” Young says. 

Other research team members include eight undergraduate research assistants from Baruch College and Young’s collaborator on the project, Professor Donald Sacco from the University of Southern Mississippi, as well as a graduate student from the school.

Young spoke to The Graduate Center about the project and what motivates him. 

The Graduate Center: What drew you to explore the tension between social distancing and human contact?

Young: The motivation for this research predates the pandemic. In fact, along with several colleagues, this line of research began when I was a grad student. There is a large literature on what are called “fundamental motives” that are ostensibly the result of evolutionary pressures. Some are obvious, e.g., hunger and thirst, but others are less obvious, but more interesting, including the need to belong to groups and have relationships with other people. When this need is unmet, negative consequences occur such as depression, anxiety, etc. However, there are risks that come with socializing, including the fact that people can get each other sick. I’ve researched how people balance the risks and rewards of social contact in the past, but the pandemic provided a real-world context where the tension between social motives and disease avoidance motives was salient. Basically, it was a case where my research interest became suddenly very relevant. 

GC: Your project “aims to encourage people to engage in social distancing behaviors.” What form will that take?

Young: In terms of trying to support social distancing, the idea is to examine how people can satisfy affiliation motives through technology-mediated forms of communication like Zoom, FaceTime, etc. We’re also testing how factors like age, socioeconomic status, and location, for example, urban vs. rural, affect familiarity with and access to these communication platforms. Overall, the idea is that if people can get small doses of socialization without risking face-to-face contact, we can find ways to satisfy socialization motives while also keeping people safe. 

Submitted on: DEC 23, 2020

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