By: Nicole St. Jacques
Adherence to COVID-19 guidelines, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, has been shown to effectively lower positive cases in academic institutions. However, despite these precautions, cases continued to rise among college-aged students during fall 2020, causing many universities to shut down during their first semester. One New York Catholic university, however, was an exception: Fordham University. To identify factors that were yielding high levels of adherence to COVID-19 regulations among Fordham students, psychologist and academic dean Rachel Annunziato recruited two undergraduate researchers, Kristina Stevanovic and Julia Flood.
Stevanovic and Flood are both juniors at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. Stevanovic, a psychology major, joined the project at its inception in fall 2020. After looking at previous literature, she helped hypothesize six constructs that impacted adherence: self-efficacy, conscientiousness, social support, collectivism, empathy, and fear of COVID-19. Flood, a chemistry major, joined after the team distributed a survey to measure these constructs. She helped analyze the study’s results and provided a unique voice to the team, which consisted primarily of members of the psychology department.
After selecting their variables, the team arranged a short battery of questionnaires. They used an online survey service so that they could administer the study remotely. First, they created a questionnaire titled The Precaution Adherence Measure to measure precautionary behavior and adherence to COVID-19 guidelines among students. Then, they utilized preexisting measures that correlated with hypothesized variables. The General Self-Efficacy Questionnaire assessed the participants’ perceived sense of self-efficacy, or the capacity to execute necessary behaviors. The researchers used the Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) to determine participants’ conscientiousness, a personality trait that relates to diligence and carefulness. The Modified Social Support Survey (MOS-SSS) evaluated each individual’s level of social support, and the Individualism and Collectivism Scale (INDCOL) considered collectivism, which is the practice of prioritizing group needs over personal goals. The team then included a part of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) that examines aspects of empathy. They identified empathic concern and perspective taking as the components most related to the study. Finally, the researchers used the Fear of COVID-19 Scale to analyze participants’ anxious emotions resulting from the pandemic.
To find participants, the team sent the questionnaires to professors in the psychology department. As many professors required students to fulfill a research requirement as part of the curriculum, students could achieve this through being a participant in a research project. As a result, the number of participants exceeded the researchers’ expectations. The team also used social media to gather participants outside of the psychology classes.
Out of the six constructs, four were statistically significant: empathy, conscientiousness, fear of COVID-19, and collectivism. Stevanovic and Flood summarize the results of the study as follows: A sense of care for others within the surrounding community is a key factor in increasing COVID-19 guideline adherence. Initially, the research team was surprised to find that self-efficacy and social support were not correlated with guideline adherence. However, Stevanovic and Flood say that this is because the pandemic is, to an extent, uncontrollable. While students can work to minimize case numbers, they cannot mitigate the pandemic itself. Additionally, the two undergraduates attribute the low correlation of the social support variable to the fact that Fordham University students already scored high levels on this variable in studies prior to the pandemic. During the study, Flood realized that political ideology could be a confounding variable: students who identified as conservative are generally less likely to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines. They may also be less likely to be influenced by rhetoric that encourages community and group perseverance. Although the researchers did not analyze this component, in hindsight, they realized it may have influenced the results. She and Stevanovic remark that this concept would be fascinating to formally explore further in a future study.
Flood, who previously synthesized organic semiconductors in a lab, will continue her biochemical research this summer. She hopes to earn her Ph.D. in biochemistry. However, she is grateful for the opportunity to work with the psychology department, which she says increased her appreciation for interdisciplinary research. Stevanovic, who previously studied health-seeking behaviors among participants in a telehealth program, seeks to continue researching health behaviors. In particular, she is curious how social support plays a role in an individual’s tendency to receive medical and psychological treatment. She is additionally interested in finding new ways to increase student usage of mental health resources on college campuses. Alongside her research, Stevanovic hopes to receive her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. The correlations discovered in this study serve as identifiable examples of abstract concepts that materialize in worldly behaviors. Both students express they are thrilled to see how the findings of this research influence future pandemic responses in universities.