Psychological Research in the Age of COVID-19

How COVID-19 is affecting psychological research: challenges and opportunities.

Posted Oct 30, 2020

There is hardly a facet of human life that has not been dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the realm of psychology, the effects of the pandemic are seen across the research field. In this post, I'll highlight three challenges to psychological research brought on by the pandemic, as well as some new opportunities that have emerged.

1. Challenges of conducting laboratory research

Historically, the majority of research in psychology is conducted in a laboratory setting. For example, when researchers investigate a perceptual phenomenon, participants come into the lab and complete a task, typically sitting in front of a computer screen. The lab affords researchers systematic control over the conditions that might affect participants' behavior, such as the lighting, the volume of the headphones, the size of the stimuli on the screen. In addition, a research assistant can aid in the experiment process: ensuring participants' informed consent to participate, answering questions that might come up, and monitoring whether the participant is paying attention or distracted.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of lab research has largely come to a halt. Most research universities and institutes currently deem in-person psychological experiments too risky, and so many researchers are resorting to conducting research remotely. Interviews that were conducted in person are shifting over to Zoom. Computer-based tasks that allowed researchers high precision and control are now being run remotely via web-app services, which introduce issues of lag and noise.

Opportunities

Despite these challenges, there are a few silver linings. First, the shift to remote experimentation has led to new innovations and tools for conducting experiments. For example, it is now possible to conduct eye-tracking studies remotely by relying on participants' own web cameras. Eye movement data from a webcam is certainly less reliable than data collected in the lab: The webcam is lower resolution, the lighting conditions are not controlled, participants' distance to the camera is not fixed, etc.

However, the ability to collect such data remotely — even if it is noisier — has one advantage, namely that we can recruit a broader sample of participants. Since there are no geographic restrictions, researchers can diversify their participant populations, and run participants who may not otherwise have access to participate in research. Still, participation requires a computer and a reliable internet connection, which not everyone has access to. Efforts to create public broadband internet will be paramount in increasing diversity in psychological research.

2. Challenges of initiating research collaborations

Often the most productive research collaborations emerge from a spontaneous conversation of two colleagues crossing paths in a hallway or sharing an elevator ride. The physical space provided by a research department can encourage the exchange of ideas, leading to new projects and discoveries. In the age of COVID-19, however, these spontaneous opportunities to connect are largely absent. Instead, remote meetings have to be scheduled in advance and are fewer and farther between.

Opportunities

On the flip side, the lack of geographic constraints when using teleconferencing technology can also expand the reach of collaborations to places around the world. Aside from differences in time zones, researchers can maintain collaborations across continents in ways that didn't seem possible before. In addition, research departments can invite guest speakers from all over the world, previously having to limit speakers to those within driving distance.

3. Challenges of studying changing psychological phenomena

As COVID-19 has fundamentally altered so many aspects of our lives, the very psychological phenomena that researchers study are changing too. For example, psycholinguists, who specialize in understanding how people communicate with each other, now have to consider that much of our communication is occurring remotely. Could the repeated experience of communicating with each other via platforms like Zoom end up altering how we communicate with each other face-to-face? Will the experience of eye contact change after having been exposed to months and months of eye-contact-less video chatting? How are people's experiences of togetherness and loneliness changing when much of our social contact happens online?

Opportunities

Of course, along with these challenges come new opportunities to study the emerging phenomena themselves. "Zoom fatigue" — a term that would have sounded foreign a mere eight months ago — is something we all experience. What are the factors that lead to it? How can we overcome it? What is the quarantine doing to people's sense of connection and loneliness? 

Amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are also some promising opportunities for psychological researchers. The pressure to develop new tools for conducting research remotely will have lasting benefits for researchers, allowing the recruitment of more diverse participant populations. Long-distance collaborations are easier to maintain when geographic constraints are erased by teleconferencing technology. And psychological processes that are changing in response to the pandemic will provide new areas of investigation for the post-pandemic research world.