A student struggling to determine if he should major in psychology once approached emeritus professor of psychology David Bishop to ask his advice. Professor Bishop prodded asking, “Well… is psychology the kind of topic that you’d sit down on a Saturday night and read about just for fun?” I’ve asked myself the same question several times in the last few months, and the answer is definitely, yes!
As the COVID-19 era sprang upon us in these past few months I found myself simply overwhelmed, but in a good way, with the question of how, as a psychological scientist, I could help. You see, I belong to a sub-discipline, that is a smaller circle of psychology, focused on health psychology or what is often referred to as behavioral medicine. In this field we ask fascinating questions about how the way we think, feel, and behave relates to our health. When COVID-19 hit, I couldn’t help but ask the question, how do our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors impact what we do in this moment to keep ourselves healthy or expose ourselves to this new virus.
Typically when a scientist sets out to study a new topic it begins with measurement. You have to be able to measure something before you can study it. So, I set out to measure COVID-19-related health behaviors and found a list of recommendations on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. These are pretty common sense recommendations (e.g., wash your hands, cover your cough, etc.) for how to stay healthy and avoid illness in any run-of-the-mill cold and flu season—which seemed especially important in the COVID-19 flu season. But, having a list of recommendations is a far cry from having a method of measuring COVID-19-related health behaviors.
So how could I measure COVID-19-related health behaviors? That was a question that consumed almost every night, weekend, and holiday over the spring term. When I wasn’t teaching classes in my newly emerging role as the Zoom instructor, I was concentrating on this question. Given the new endeavors involved in Zoom-teaching, -advising, and -office hours, this made for some late nights, early mornings, and long working weekends. But, as professor Bishop suggested, it can be a lot of fun, even if it is a LOT of work.
The answer to the measurement conundrum was to seek the support of my students at Luther College and colleagues at Stetson University, Hope College, and Harvard University. One, in particular, was a real spark-plug, you know the kind of person who is the straw that stirs the drink, as they say. Her name is Alyssa Cheadle and she is an assistant professor of psychology at Hope College and a Luther College 2008 alum. She is simply dynamite. When the calamity of the pandemic just seemed too big or the uncertainty and anxiety of the time seemed too overwhelming, Alyssa kept our group focused and efficient. Not only that, but she’s organized, efficient, brilliant, and well-trained. Of course I’d say that, right. But she holds degrees from Harvard and UCLA too. Like I said, she’s dynamite!
It is funny how in times of stress, we find out just how important our colleagues and communities are. The community at Luther is strong. Students quickly jumped at the chance to help, despite being dislocated and distressed with new living arrangements, new “roommates” (Mom/Dad/siblings), and lots of, I mean lots, of uncertainty. It has been said that times of adversity do not build character but instead reveal it. If that is true, what I know about Luther is that the student body is a robust and resilient one.
What we finally arrived at after months of work was a scientifically validated brief and efficient measure of COVID-19-related health behaviors. You can read the published work or contact me for a copy. This measure was recently published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine and you can answer the questions. This is a test that in nine questions allows us to assess whether someone is behaving in healthy or unhealthy ways regarding COVID-19. It is crucial that we know this because at present the only sure thing we can do is behave in healthy ways to stay healthy. We have inadequate viral testing, monitoring, treatment, and vaccination. We feel like this test could be quite helpful in identifying where more education might be needed or in finding or predicting where hot spots of virus outbreak might be occurring. This information about behavior could be helpful for colleges, churches, businesses, government offices and just about any organization.
In the midst of the emerging pandemic my student research team, along with our collaborators across the country, set out to develop and offer a new means of assessing COVID-19-related health behaviors. My student team at Luther is known at the Laboratory for the Investigation of Mind, Body, and Spirit , a lab that has existed at Luther for 16 years now. A hallmark of this lab is that it is student-centered, engaging, active in many areas of research, and always pushing students to become more complete students of psychology. We are focused on helping in the era of COVID-19 and it will take courage to do so when so often attempts to help are met with intolerance and hostility.
Our lab welcomes all comers and builds on the strengths of each individual to improve our ability as a whole to better understand and improve the human condition. Some of our lab members have already begun to use the measurement tool we developed to investigate predictors, correlates, and outcomes of healthy behavior. The psychology major at Luther trains students to be psychological scientists and practitioners, and where these budding professionals take the study of psychological aspects of COVID-19 is up to them. Knowing these folks, I believe our work will offer some good insights and help us manage the challenging times we now face.