Jocelyn Bélanger wearing a blue medical mask

Jocelyn Bélanger (NYUAD)

Examining How Human Behavior Across the Globe Spreads—or Stems—the Virus

By Paula Akpan

Much scientific talk about COVID-19 hinges on the hunt for a vaccine. But Jocelyn Bélanger wants to arrest its spread another way. Since March, the NYU Abu Dhabi assistant professor of psychology has led an investigation with 100 behavioral scientists on five continents into the cultural and psychological implications of the pandemic.

“The first phase was to disseminate a global survey through word of mouth or social media,” Bélanger says. “We just wanted to get people’s reactions—their fear of contamination, the financial strains they were experiencing, and whether they were receiving clear messages from their government about what to do with COVID-19.”

The consortium used the responses to the survey, which had more than 75,000 respondents, to see how the virus shaped one’s psychology, particularly if a person had contracted it or somebody close to them had. They also wanted to know, says Bélanger, what impact it would have on mitigation behavior, such as washing their hands or social distancing, and “if people in their community also abide by the regulations.”

Using sample survey results, Bélanger and the team began a data integration project. They studied the behaviors and COVID-19-related statistics being gathered by other researchers (how quickly the virus spread, the number of cases worldwide, the number of hospital beds available) of 115 nations and compared them with their own findings. Using artificial intelligence, they plan to extract patterns from these huge databases and present them to policymakers for review.

“Our sample is a mirror image of the country-level census information, so it enables policymakers to extrapolate information and make policies based on that,” Bélanger says. “That has been one of our main goals.”

The research has yielded interesting insights. “We found that people who are recorded to be in proximity to COVID, so got it themselves or someone close to them [did], tend to have a more negative view toward immigrants,” Bélanger explains, adding that paranoia is often heightened in a crisis, leading to a wariness of others, particularly strangers.

Though the professor’s main research areas are political violence and environmental sustainability, a sense of urgency led him to this project: “We hope that by doing rigorous research, submitting it to journals, and making the data public for anyone in the world to access for free, we’ll be able to avoid mistakes [in the future that were] made this time around.”