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December 6, 2021

The Psychology Behind Students’ Public Health Decisions During COVID-19

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In the past year and a half, many students have changed their behavior around travel, events and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic — with a previous academic year that included COVID-19 testing, indoor masking and Zoom fatigue.

The Sun spoke to Prof. Laura Niemi, psychology, about the moral dilemmas that young people, particularly college students, face while making public health decisions during the pandemic. 

According to Niemi, being aware that certain activities are risky but still wanting to participate is one moral dilemma for many people. Traveling is one example of this, especially since many students left Ithaca for fall break and Thanksgiving break this semester.  

“People are managing their tight, close relationships as well as they can without feeling like they’re harming other people that they don’t know,” Niemi said. 

Niemi added that a dilemma for college students is balancing the quality of their college experience with the shared effort of protecting others by reducing the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, Cornell students have cited a lack of in-person socialization as a strain on mental health.

“It feels like we have to make a trade-off,” Niemi said. “You see students grappling with this, trying to figure out ‘How much does my behavior have to change?’” 

According to Niemi, socializing with others plays a major role in decision making because building connections with peers is very important to adolescents.

Victoria Varlack ’22 said she and her roommates balance socializing with public health precautions by spending most of their time in a small circle. 

Despite taking the necessary precautions, Varlack said that being a college student during the pandemic has been tough. She was a sophomore when the pandemic began and did not anticipate it lasting through the rest of her Cornell career. 

“At the end of sophomore year, I kind of had hoped that the pandemic would end within a few months,” Varlack said. 

Niemi explained how moral judgment plays a role in college students’ social nature.

“I think that people can feel ashamed, embarrassed or even compelled to lie when they’re diagnosed [with COVID-19], Niemi said. “I think it’s a moral issue how we treat it and how we talk about it with students.” 

However, Varlack said pointing fingers at those engaging in irresponsible behaviors likely isn’t an effective way to get individuals to change these behaviors. Experts also support the idea that public shaming is ineffective. 

“I think it’s important to hold other people accountable, but I do think most of the time, this incites defensiveness from the person who’s doing something that might be wrong, and I don’t think that’s productive,” Varlack said. 

The COVID-19 vaccine, which became available to the public this year, has also played a role in students’ behaviors. Last spring, Varlack said there was a significant shift in student behaviors, when people became much more comfortable with going back to “normal.” For example, large outdoor gatherings towards the end of last semester were quite frequent.

Moral judgments about behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic can also be attributed to politics. COVID-19 has become a politically polarizing issue in the United States, especially due to mask mandates and vaccine debates. 

Niemi found that differences in moral values, along with demographic factors such as political orientation, gender, education and income level, had a stronger influence on attitudes on people who contracted COVID-19 than on attitudes on people who have contracted other illnesses. 

“That suggests that COVID-19 is a little unusual right now, where it’s not just our moral values that are informing how we behave and react to COVID-19 protection advice, but it’s also politics,” Niemi said. 

With the University having an official Thanksgiving break for the first time since fall 2019, many students made plans to leave campus. However, for those who aim to be cautious about the pandemic, leaving campus wasn’t as simple as it was two years ago.

Erin Fox ’23 looked forward to going to her friend’s house in Buffalo, New York, this Thanksgiving but planned to take safety measures to minimize COVID-19 risk.

“I will pretty much exclusively be seeing her family during Thanksgiving,” Fox said before the break. “I’m going to get tested before and after I go, and I’ll probably wear a mask around my roommate until my test comes back negative.” 

Fox said that while the vaccine and booster shots have given her a sense of normalcy, she still finds it important to still be careful, especially during winter break. 

“Once I’m home [in San Diego for winter break], I will be seeing my friends and that’s probably it. I’m probably not going to be going to big venues,”  Fox said. “I know some people are going to different countries over winter break, but personally, I’m not quite there yet.”

When it comes to taking COVID-19 safety measures while still enjoying the holidays, Fox said that transparency about vaccination status among family and friends is something that she finds important. 

Despite the challenges of navigating our college experiences during a pandemic, students have been able to adapt. 

“I’m happy that we’re able to adjust the way that we have been doing college so we can actually have in-person classes,” Varlack said. ”It’s definitely a big adjustment in trying to get the expectations in my mind to catch up with reality.”