People have a powerful need to interact with each other. They also have strong desires to avoid disease. Social distancing is the primary behavioral method to stop disease from spreading. Yet, social distancing goes against the natural desire for social interactions. The tension between those dual motives can cause psychological distress, and may lead people to violate restrictions on face-to-face contact in their effort to relieve stress and loneliness. This is especially likely for people who do not have access to highly immersive forms of virtual socialization, such as internet-based video calls that let people see friends and family. It may also apply more often for older adults (who are most vulnerable to COVID-19) because of less familiarity with technology-based interaction platforms. By better understanding how people resolve the tension between the need to interact with others and the desire to avoid disease, this project will inform the development of public health interventions aimed at curbing the spread of disease.

This project contrasts the need to affiliate with the desire to avoid disease. One aim is to inform the development of interventions designed to avoid loneliness while engaging in social distancing. Study 1 collects data from the same participants across multiple days. Measures of loneliness, concerns with contracting an illness, and amounts and types of social interactions will be collected. The research tests the hypothesis that participants with limited access to virtual social interactions (e.g., those with limited financial means, the elderly) will feel most lonely and report decreased concerns about disease, which will be associated with more frequent violations of social distancing behaviors. Study 2 experimentally manipulates feelings of inclusion versus exclusion to test for effects of social isolation and for the concern of contracting the disease. Both studies are based on large and representative samples of U.S. residents to ensure the findings are applicable across different age ranges, geographical regions, and socioeconomic groups within the country. The research elucidates how various psychological processes work against each other and in interaction to ultimately influence social behavior. The research further investigates how people can safely satisfy their motives to affiliate without sacrificing safety. The long-term goal is to inform the development of interventions that may be developed to promote appropriate behavioral responses during the current and future pandemics.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Steven J. Breckler
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Southern Mississippi
United States
Zip Code