Behavioral expert and Psychologist Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin Weighs In
By Maria Anna van Driel, www.nexttruth.com
It was inevitable! The threat of the corona virus pandemic has gripped the world population. The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 was, according to Wikipedia, first identified in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, and was recognized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March 2020. As of 24 March, more than 414,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in more than 190 countries and territories, resulting in more than 18,500 deaths and more than 108,000 recoveries. But besides the clinical picture of COVID-19 and the myriad news broadcasts spreading an avalanche of information on how to reduce the process of becoming sick and how to prevent the virus spreading, there is also a psychological effect. An effect what is most likely finds its source in the isolation that has imposed on people and will remain visible for a longer period after COVID-19 is so abundantly present in our lives.
How do people perceive the risks of this novel threat? What are the psychological effects of the isolation we are experiencing? To gain both a deeper insight in these questions and a clearer view on the latest research developments of today’s pandemic I reached out to an expert on public behavior during risky times and decision-making from the Netherland, Prof. Wändi Bruine de Bruin, PhD.
Prof. Bruine de Bruin moved to USC from the University of Leeds (United Kingdom), where she directed the Center for Decision Research and held a Leadership Chair in Behavioral Decision Making. In January 2020 she imitated the new position of “Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science” at the University of Southern California (USC) where her research aims to understand and inform how, across the life span, people make decisions about their health, their well-being, and their environmental impacts.
‘At USC, Prof. Bruine de Bruin explains, Provost Professors are appointed by the Provost in recognition of their contribution to multiple academic disciplines.’ ‘It feels great to get this recognition and that interdisciplinary research is valued so much at the University of Southern California. In my view, important societal problems cannot be resolved by looking at them through the narrow lens of just one academic discipline.’
Together with her colleagues at the USC, she is conducting a national US longitudinal survey to track people’s risk perceptions of and experiences with COVID-19, as well as economic and mental health consequences. But when Prof. Bruine de Bruin started her career, applied and interdisciplinary research was often frowned upon – because it was thought to not make sufficient theoretical contributions. In this she disagrees, given that insights from other disciplines can help improve on theories and methods for testing theories.
‘Needless to say, my first semester at USC did not turn out the way I had anticipated’, Prof. Bruine de Bruin adds. ‘Fortunately, my USC colleagues are also wonderful to work with over Skype, Zoom, phone, and email.’
Nowadays she has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers on these topics, in journals targeting psychology, public policy, health, and environmental science. She is a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:Applied, the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Decision, Medical Decision Making, the Journal of Risk Research, and Psychology and Aging.
‘We have come a long way in showing that interdisciplinary research can lead to new insights – with both practical and theoretical implications’, Prof Bruin de Bruin states proudly.
To become more familiar with the work of Prof. Wändi Bruine de Bruin you can visit the Website of the University of Southern California, https://priceschool.usc.edu/people/wandi-bruine-de-bruin/
Welcome Professor Bruine de Bruin. I appreciate the time you are taking for letting us peer into your career as a provost Professor of public policy, psychology, and behavioral science and your psychological view on this frightening topic of COVID-19.
Q: Can you tell the readers of The Next Truth a little bit about yourself? Who is Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: I grew up on a flower farm in the Netherlands, and was the first in my family to attend university. I received a BSc in psychology and an MSc in cognitive psychology from the Free University in Amsterdam. My family wasn’t sure how to feel about my chosen path, but that changed when I got into the PhD program in Behavioral Decision Research at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States.
Q: What inspired you to step into the science of psychology and behavioral science?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: I originally wanted to be a therapist, so I went to the Free University in Amsterdam to study clinical psychology. However, the initial classes I was taking on that topic did not involve a lot of discussion of the evidence base for their approaches. I was much more attracted to the psychology of judgment and decision making, which was taught as part of cognitive psychology, and offered a more rigorous approach for identifying potential problems, developing interventions, and testing their effectiveness. Although a lot of the research in that field focused on studying decision problems in the lab, with undergraduate students as participants, I thought it had great promise for understanding and informing people’s decisions about real-world issues, such as those related to their health, finances, and environmental impacts.
Q: I spoke briefly to your colleague Professor Baruch Fischhoff and he made me extremely curious about the origin of your surname. Would you reveal to our readers what the peculiarity and history is of your surname?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: My mother spent some time tracking our family history and it turns out that our last name is a mistake. “De Bruin” is a common last name in the Netherlands and it means Brown. At some point in my family history, someone added “Bruine” (which also means brown) to indicate the first name of their father. A lot of people think that our name indicates some kind of fancy heritage, but it was simply a mistake. My family has existed of farmers or farm hands for many generations.
My name is unique, but hard to spell. Even my co-authors have a hard time getting it right. I often get mis-cited as de Bruin, WB or with several other variations.
Q: If I understood correctly, you are originally from the Netherlands. How did you come to work as a collaborating professor at Carnegie Mellon University?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: Gideon Keren supervised my masters thesis and he strongly encouraged me to apply to the PhD program at Carnegie Mellon University. I had never been to the United States, and wasn’t so sure that I wanted to live there. But I loved the idea of working with Baruch Fischhoff, whom I had cited heavily in my masters thesis. I got in, and have been working with Baruch ever since. (And I liked living in the United States much more than I thought I would. I lived in Pittsburgh for a total of 16 years, and live in Los Angeles now, after 7 years in Leeds, United Kingdom. I am still a collaborating professor at Carnegie Mellon today, although my main affiliation is now as Provost Professor at the University of Southern California.)
Q: The world has undergone a lock-down so to speak. What do you think will be the psychological and economical effect(s) of this global isolation?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: In the baseline survey of our national longitudinal COVID-19 survey that we conducted in March 2020, when COVID-19 was starting to spread in the United States, we were already seeing the initial mental health consequences. Participants were reporting elevated levels of anxiety and depression, which are likely to worsen over time, as the health and financial consequences worsen.
Q: Are you in a quarantine area yourself? If so, how limited are your social activities at the moment and how do you experience this isolation?
Prof, Bruin de Bruin: My husband and I only recently moved to Los Angeles. I started my new job at USC in January of 2020. We were hardly settled in when the stay at home order went into effect in California. We had not even gotten around to buying a car yet – not that we need it now.
I have been working from home since March 10. I started earlier than was required by USC or the state of California, because I had been taking the bus to work, and it seemed wise to avoid public transportation.
Although I am not a pandemic flu expert, I had served on two expert panels on pandemic flu in 2005-2006, to contribute expertise in psychology and behavioral science. I had learned a lot about pandemic flu and non-pharmacological interventions such as social distancing.
We still go out for walks in our neighborhood, where the streets are quiet and it is easy to maintain a safe distance from others. Because we only just moved here from England, we very much enjoy the weather and the beautiful gardens in our neighborhood. I think those walks are keeping me sane. And, even though it may sound strange, all the work associated with the COVID-19 survey is also helping to keep my mind off worries about COVID-19.
Q: According to the website of World Health Organization; “Older people and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.” Which impact has information as such on the decisions people make?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: In our initial survey that we conducted in March 2020, we are not yet seeing a lot of differences between older vs. younger people, and people with vs. without diabetes, in terms of their tendency to step up their hand-washing and social distancing. I think that at that time, people were still unsure about how serious it was, and what to do.
We did find that older adult age was associated with reporting better mental health, despite older adults recognizing the greater case-fatality rate for their age group. This finding is in line with other research in the psychology of aging, which suggests that older adults experience less negative emotions, have better emotion regulation, and are less responsive to stressors.
It is possible that these findings will change as the epidemic continues, and people who are older and those with serious health conditions are disproportionally affected. I expect that our first follow-up survey will show more responsiveness to the information that has been released, in regards to greater risk perceptions and anxiety, and even more implementation of protective behaviors. We will also be examining how people with serious health conditions are faring.
Q: Racism or xenophobia seems to rise in people’s minds as soon as social media hints in the direction of a possible origin of a flu outbreak. It was only recently that the world was in a panic mode about Ebola, which originated in Africa. How do you think that a previous shock as such plays into how people are reacting today on the threat of the COVID-19?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: Our survey had questions about discrimination and unfair treatment associated with COVID-19. In our initial analysis of data collected between March 10-16, we found that 14 percent of Asians and 10 percent of non-Hispanic blacks had such experiences, as opposed to 4 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 6 percent of Hispanics and 6 percent of people in other racial and ethnic groups.
Q: Professor Bruine de Bruin, thank you so much for this interview. Do you have any additional advice you can give on how people can manage their anxiety around this novel virus?
Prof. Bruine de Bruin: A lot of people are feeling increased anxiety, which is normal under these circumstances. Some helpful suggestions from the field of psychology for reducing anxiety:
- Focus on the things you can control
- Limit exposure to anxiety-provoking news sources
- Do slow breathing exercises
- Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for being stressed and distracted
- Take care of your health
- Stick to a daily routine
- Connect with others (via the phone, Skype, or zoom)
- Seek professional help (via phone or telehealth) if your anxiety is too hard to deal with
For additional suggestions, please see the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html