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NSF Grant Supporting Professor’s Research on Social Interaction and Distancing during COVID-19 Pandemic

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 08:27am | By: David Tisdale

Dr. Donald SaccoOne of the biggest challenges to compliance with recommended social distancing guidelines in the COVID-19 pandemic is the inherent need of people to interact with others.

That phenomenon is the focus of a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) professor’s collaborative research project that has earned funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Donald Sacco, an associate professor of social psychology and director of the School of Psychology’s Evolutionary Social Psychology Lab, was recently awarded the $40,000-plus Rapid Response Research (RAPID) Grant from the NSF for the project that will support research costs, including summer assistantships for two of his graduate students.

Dr. Sacco will serve as co-investigator of the project along with Dr. Steven Young of the City of University of New York-Baruch. Drs. Sacco and Young have been researching how people navigate their need for social connections and desire to avoid contagious illness for nearly a decade, and published this research in numerous journals.

The primary strategy to slow the transmission of the virus being has been social distancing. Such measures involve restricting human movement to decrease direct human-to-human contact. Although social distancing measures have demonstrable effectiveness, both historically and during the current pandemic, there is considerable resistance to these efforts.

Currently, nearly two million individuals in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 and approximately 110,000 have died, with estimated death tolls predicted to reach nearly 147,000 by the end of summer 2020.

“In the current research, we posit that resistance to social distancing guidelines may be rooted in humans’ strong desire to affiliate with others that persists even when doing so could be costly,” Dr. Sacco said. “To do so, this funding will support two large scale studies to include nationally representative samples to examine how best to support and maintain social distancing efforts while still satisfying the need for social connections.”

The first study will use experiencing sampling methods to track participants’ engagement with different forms of technology-mediated social interaction (e.g., Skype, text messaging, phone calls) over time, and how these mediums differentially satisfy social affiliation needs and tolerance for social distancing. This study will examine how factors including age and regional infrastructure (e.g., high speed internet availability) affect the willingness and ability to prioritize engagement in technology-mediated interactions over in-person interactions, when minimizing the spread of disease is of immediate social importance.

An experimental study is designed to provide causal evidence that indirect socialization experiences can ease the burden of isolation and increase adherence to social distancing protocols. This research will facilitate identifying best-practices during the present public health emergency, and during any future pandemics that require social distancing.

“Our hope is that the information gained from this research will assist with the development of strategies that facilitate people’s adherence to social distancing policies when needed to reduce the spread of contagious illness by better ensuring people can effectively avoid physical contact

with others, while also finding suitable ways to maintain their social connections with others,” Dr. Sacco said.

Alicia Macchione and Kelsey Drea, doctoral students in the School of Psychology’s Brain and Behavior program, will assist Dr. Sacco as research assistants on the grant. “Hopefully our work will offer support to those who are struggling to find ways to stay social while individuals are still following social distancing guidelines,” Drea said, while Macchione notes the project “has the potential to answer many important questions related to the present global pandemic, as well as inform behavior for future emergencies.”

Dr. Alen Hajnal, associate professor of psychology and director of the USM Brain and Behavior doctoral program, said the grant “reinforces the fact that empirical science has a strong role to play in the present crisis, and the results will have a clear benefit for public health and hold the potential to have a great impact for communities across the country.”

“During the COVID -19 pandemic, we have learned that human behavior is a crucial factor in determining the scale and spread of the disease,” Dr. Hajnal said. “As a result, Dr. Sacco's grant will raise the profile and value of experimental psychology as a research discipline at large, and will also put the Brain and Behavior Ph.D. program here at USM on the map as a graduate program with a rigorous scientific profile.”

The School of Psychology is housed in the USM College of Education and Human Sciences, where Dr. Sacco also serves as a faculty member for the School’s Brain and Behavior doctoral program. For more information about Dr. Sacco’s work in the Evolutionary Social Psychology Laboratory at USM, visit