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Social Science Researchers Engage Students in Social and Policy Questions Raised by COVID-19

May 14, 2020
by Barbara Steinberger

What kinds of messages are most effective in persuading people to follow social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19? How can we hold safe and fair elections in the age of coronavirus? How are vulnerable populations in developing countries being affected by the economic devastation caused by the pandemic?

Those are some of the social science questions related to COVID-19 that are being explored by Yale researchers. Five faculty members recently gave short presentations about their projects for Yale College students interested in working with them as research assistants. More than 200 students attended the virtual session through Zoom. The program, “COVID-19 Social Science Research Opportunities,” was co-sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Division of Social Science, the Institution for Social & Policy Studies (ISPS), and the Tobin Center for Economic Policy.

Here are brief descriptions of the research being conducted by the five speakers at the event. 


Examining Moral Dilemmas Posed by COVID-19

Molly Crockett, Assistant Professor of Psychology

Crockett’s research focuses on moral psychology. A classic dilemma studied by moral psychologists is the “Trolley Problem.” In that hypothetical case, a runaway trolley is approaching five people who are tied to the trolley tracks—but if you pull a lever, it will divert the trolley to a different set of tracks where only one person is tied down. Should you pull the lever, killing one but sparing the lives of five others? Two major philosophical traditions recommend different responses. Utilitarian approaches seek to impartially maximize aggregate welfare and thus recommend pulling the lever. But deontological theories, which focus on rights, duties, and obligations, argue that you should not pull the lever—because killing is always wrong, even if it has good consequences.

“Decisions about whether and when to reopen the economy introduce moral dilemmas similar to those raised by the trolley problem,” Crockett said. Philosophers are highlighting the long-term consequences of lockdowns on people’s well-being, which must be traded off against the risk of additional deaths imposed by reopening. Leaders around the world are considering these arguments and sometimes making such arguments themselves, which are often met with public outrage.

Crockett’s COVID-related research will examine how utilitarian versus deontological arguments for lockdowns and social distancing affect people’s trust in leaders and willingness to share their messages with others. 


Safe Elections, Persuasive Messaging, and Curated Survey Data

Gregory Huber, Chair and Forst Family Professor of Political Science, Faculty in Residence at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS), Associate Director of the Center for the Study of American Politics, and founding director of the ISPS Behavioral Research Lab

Huber is conducting three COVID-related research projects.

The first will examine how we can support safe elections during this time. Huber’s research will explore such questions as: What are the barriers to moving voters to mail-in balloting? What are peoples’ beliefs and feelings about the safety and efficacy of mail-in voting and in-person voting? What information and resources can be provided to encourage using alternatives to polling place voting? How can voting in polling places be changed to reduce public health risks? Which subgroups are most likely to change their voting behavior?

Huber’s second project will look at how we can develop persuasive messaging to get people to engage in social distancing and related public health behaviors. Now that it has become clear that COVID-19 will remain a health risk for the foreseeable future, how do we convince people to engage in behaviors that will reduce the risk of further disease spread? This project will look at people’s beliefs and actions about social distancing practices; the barriers to undertaking risk-reducing behaviors; and the messages that are most likely to cause individuals to engage in desired behaviors.

For the third project, Huber is hoping to develop a comprehensive database and potential archive of social science-relevant survey data from the United States about COVID-19. “There is an enormous amount of survey data being collected right now about individuals’ behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and understanding of the disease,” Huber said. Limor Peer (ISPS) and Barbara Esty (Library) will be organizing the curation of all available public opinion data, with the goal of making it available to the larger community for subsequent research. Having all of the survey data in one place will significantly reduce duplication and speed up access to those materials, Huber said.


Supporting COVID-19 Policy Responses in Low-income Settings in India and Nepal

Rohini Pande, Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Economics, Director of the Economic Growth Center

Pande is working with researchers and policy-makers in India and Nepal to collect and use quantitative data to identify which citizens have been put in the most economic distress by the COVID-19 lockdowns, and to help guide social programs in protecting them.

The research will be used “to provide some guidance on these questions of who is affected the most by the lockdown, what is the nature of social protection that is being put in place, and how should you both ease out of the lockdown and ensure that the most vulnerable are being looked after during this period,” Pande said. These vulnerable groups include women, migrants, and those who rely on daily earnings for subsistence.

One of the challenges that Pande and her team face is the method of collecting data. Face-to-face, in-person interviewing is not possible due to the pandemic. And online surveying or phone-based questioning could lead to under-representation of key groups. For instance, women in South Asia have significantly less access to mobile phones than men (and the lack of access for women has been even more severe during the lockdown). Therefore, researchers will look at alternative forms of data collection, Pande said. For example, they will try using real-time food price data to identify areas of food shortage, and combine surveys with administrative data to identify who is excluded from social protection programs. To make findings accessible to development practitioners, Pande and her team hope to use data visualization and policy briefs to summarize their quantitative research.


Supporting Governments Facing Unprecedented Challenges

David Wilkinson, Executive Director, Tobin Center for Economic Policy; Assistant Professor Adjunct at the School of Medicine Child Study Center; Senior Fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies

Yale’s Tobin Center for Economic Policy has been working with federal, state, and local governments that have a great need for strategic, tactical, and analytic support due to the COVID-19 crisis. The Tobin Center has been serving as a platform to connect government agencies in need with Yale students, researchers, and faculty who want to put their skills to work on COVID-19-related issues.

“Governments are very much on the front lines of responding to the crisis. They are facing unprecedented demand for services,” Wilkinson said. For example, in Connecticut, wait times for unemployment insurance went from three days to six weeks as the state faced a historic influx of applications. The state of Massachusetts saw food stamp applications quadruple as the pandemic led to layoffs, Wilkinson said.

At the same time, federal, state, and local governments “are also dealing with new and unfamiliar challenges. How do you help small businesses restart? How do you use cell phone data to understand public health risk hot spots?” Wilkinson said. The Tobin Center has provided support on a variety of projects since the start of the pandemic, including working with the state of Connecticut to help reduce the wait times for unemployment insurance; referring Yale student data analysts to support the state of Illinois related to child welfare; and connecting faculty and students with the city of New Haven to design and implement a survey of small businesses. Following the survey, students are working directly with these businesses to better understand their needs and the barriers they face, connect them with specific services they can use, and help them apply for federal and state subsidy programs, among other things.  


An Epidemiological Model to Estimate the Effect of Different Policy Choices

Fabrizio Zilibotti, Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics

Zilibotti and two colleagues in Hong Kong are constructing an epidemiological model based on data from China, Italy, and Korea to estimate the effect of different policy responses, such as relaxing the lockdown and developing a testing strategy. Zilibotti described the project as a kind of “cost/benefit analysis” that will focus on policy choices, such as building excess testing capacity versus selective testing, and economic dimensions.

“After estimating the key parameters of the model, we will run counterfactual simulations,” Zilibotti said. “This allows us to answer policy relevant questions such as: Will a relaxation of the lockdown necessarily cause the epidemic to resume? How can we use testing and isolation to contain damage? How should policy be best designed if resources are scarce?” Another question that Zilibotti hopes to answer is “How many new infections, hospitalizations, and victims should we expect if we remove restrictions before a vaccine is developed?”

Submitted by Robert Forman on May 14, 2020