Dan Ariely: What studying 25 million students tells us about COVID-19 and depression, anxiety, loneliness

dan Ariel covid-19 and depression

COVID-19 and depression is a major problem right now for college students, who have record high levels of anxiety and stress. Are we losing our young people to depression, anxiety, and loneliness?

We’ve all being going through extreme levels of change and stress.

That started when COVID-19 burst on to our awareness, and it’s getting even worse with the uncertainty of reopening.

In this edition of TechFirst with John Koetsier we chat with Dan Ariely. He’s a professor at Duke University and the author of three New York Times best-selling books, including Predictably Irrational. He says one of the worst parts is the uncertainty and the powerlessness … and as a survivor of a horrific accident that left him burned over large parts of his body, he shares key actionable steps to regain a sense of agency and to reduce stress.

Listen: Dan Ariely on COVID-19 and depression, anxiety, and loneliness

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Watch: Dan Ariely on COVID-19 and depression, anxiety, and loneliness

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Full transcript: Dan Ariely on COVID-19 and depression, anxiety, and loneliness

John Koetsier: Are we losing our young people to depression, anxiety, and loneliness… thanks to COVID-19? 

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. We’re all going through a ton of change right now. A lot of stress. Initially due to shut down and lockdown, quarantine. But also now as we’re reopening partially, sort of, kind of, here and there. College students in particular are not reacting well.

To chat about this, I want to bring in Dan Ariely. Dan is a professor at Duke University, he’s also the author of three New York Times bestselling books, including my favorite, Predictably Irrational. Welcome, Dan!

Dan Ariely: Thank you. It’s a little strange to say ‘good to be here’ because we’re under very painful circumstances, but nevertheless, good to have a discussion.

John Koetsier: Thank you. I appreciate you taking your time. Let’s start right here: What is COVID-19 doing to our youth? 

dan Ariel covid-19 and depressionDan Ariely: So this epidemic, it’s an epidemic of multiple things. First of all, there’s the virus, no question about it. There’s the economic outcome. There’s the lockdown and there’s the uncertainty around it. And all of them make things much, much tougher.

And to think a little bit about the role of uncertainty, I’ll tell you about one of the most painful, but I think important studies on this, it’s a study of what is called “learned helplessness.” And the way this study worked is that you take a dog and you put it in a cage – I know it sounds terrible, but bear with me – where you put the dog in a cage and from time to time there’s a bell, and a few seconds later, electrical shock. Bell, few seconds, then an electrical shock. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Dan Ariely: And this dog stays like this for a while. So there’s pain, it’s predictable. There’s another dog in a different cage far away that gets the same shocks as the first dog, but just without the warning. Now think about what this says. What it basically says is how much are we able to deal with pain? And how different is it when we know that the pain is coming, than when the pain is unpredictable. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dan Ariely: And you can think about all kinds of ways in which you could test what it means. But in the first experiment, the way they tested it was they moved the dogs to another apparatus, it was a room with a low partition. And what happened from time to time there was a light, and if the dog stayed on their side of the partition they got electrical shock, but if they jumped over the partition they could avoid the shock.

And now you could see how the two dogs acted differently. The first dog walked around a few seconds, light, a few seconds, got shocks, was trying to figure out what’s going on, how is this thing happening? And eventually found out that he could escape. And from that point on, every time there was a light the dog jumped over the partition, avoided all shocks. 

The second dog didn’t even explore the world, the second dog just laid there whimpering, right? And what the idea is, that the second dog realized that the world is a bad place, and there’s no predictability and there’s nothing it can do, and therefore it’s called “learned helplessness.” And very interestingly, the second dog also had a reduction in the natural killer cells, one of the most important immune systems that we have. 

When things are unpredictable they’re very hard to deal with.

Now, the reason I’m telling you this story, and the reason I think it’s so important, is that there’s lots of things happening in this Corona crisis, but one of them is the unpredictability of the world, and the reality that when things are unpredictable they’re very hard to deal with. And who has the most amount of unpredictability? Young people. It’s true for kids as well, right? They basically have no control over their environment.

So we are dealing with lots of stress. There’s financial stress, there’s stress of the virus, and there’s the stress that comes from being in close proximity with lots of other people. And then on top of that, there’s the what is going on here? How long will this last? What are the instructions we’re getting? Yes locked down/not locked down, stay in/not stay in, who gets infected/who doesn’t. It’s really, really baffling and it’s very hard to deal with this lack of certainty and the conflicting instructions we get. 

John Koetsier: Interesting, very interesting. The uncertainty is worse than knowing that it’s going to be awful or horrible and the challenges that are in that.

Dan Ariely: Just to be clear, electrical shocks are bad.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dan Ariely: But our ability to have resilience, a lot of it has to do with our ability to control it. 

John Koetsier: And I just have to ask, was this a real study or was this a theoretical study, because it sounds cruel and unusual, and not something that they’d allow these days. 

Dan Ariely: So it is an old study, but it is a real study.

John Koetsier: Oh wow.

Dan Ariely: And actually there was lots of research on this notion of learned helplessness. And you know, we think about things like stress, and we think, ‘oh, it’s just stress.’ Like if you’re not stressed, it’s very hard for you to understand, but imagine just the story I was telling and can you really get into the mindset of that dog? It’s very hard.

Now in modern times, a lot of the research on this has gone under the basic headline of scarcity, where you don’t give people electrical shock, but you just examine people who are in a state of poverty. And you know if you’re poor, bad things can happen to you and you have no way to fight back. 

Being stressed constantly because you’re in a low income, is equivalent to more than 10 IQ points.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dan Ariely: And what they show is that being stressed constantly because you’re in a low income, is equivalent to more than 10 IQ points. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Dan Ariely: Which is a big deal. 

John Koetsier: In other words, as you’re stressed, you’re not as smart. 

Dan Ariely: Yes, yeah. Your ability to make good decisions is affected. Your memory is affected, right? Stress is fear and lack of control, and has lots of bad effects on us.

John Koetsier: Well…

Dan Ariely: And if I can say something else, somebody told me that every time I appear with video, I should explain why I have half a beard. 

John Koetsier: Sure. I’d love to hear it.

Dan Ariely: So I didn’t lose a bet. That’s what people think initially. Many years ago, I was badly burned, so most of my body is covered with scars including the right side of my face. So I just have scars and there’s no hair. And I’m mentioning this, first of all, if somebody is watching so they know I’m not… they’re not going to keep on looking for the point of this half a beard. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Dan Ariely: But the second thing is that I remember my time in hospital. So I was burned 70%, I was in hospital for about three years, and the lack of knowledge of what’s going to happen and not being able to control my own destiny in any way was incredibly tough. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dan Ariely: And it took me a long time to realize, you know, for a long time I was thinking that an injury is about the pain, and the bad treatment, and the surgeries and so on. But a lot of it has to do with laying there in bed and other people make decisions about you… when you’re going to wake up, and when they’re going to replace bandages, and how they’re going to do it, and basically have no control over my own treatment in life and so on. It was incredibly psychologically challenging.

John Koetsier: Wow, wow. Well, thanks for that perspective, because that really helps us to understand and we do feel out of control, right? We do feel, am I in control of being able to go to work? Am I in control of being able to be around my family? Am I in control?

And as you said it’s worse with young people because they lack some of the financial resources that maybe older people have, they are in the process of learning to maybe join an occupation that may not be possible right now, maybe they’re supposed to be graduating and they can’t graduate.

So there’s all these challenges around it. I want to get into some of those challenges, as well as challenges around different ideas about what coronavirus is, COVID-19 how serious it is, and some of the debates that occur – debates is the polite term – because that adds stress as well. But can you talk a little bit about the size of the study right now because it seems fantastically large. 

Dan Ariely: Yeah. So there’s an app called Wisdo that we teamed up with. So I teach at Duke, and this app is just lovely. And what it really does is it connects people who experience something when people are new to that. So it’s all the way from, are you depressed? Here are people that are depressed. Are you experiencing a romantic heartbreak? Here are people that had romantic heartbreak, all kinds of things.

The idea is that the people who’ve experienced something and have learned something can help a lot to the people who are new to that.

And the idea is that the people who’ve experienced something and have learned something can help a lot to the people who are new to that. And the reason I was originally attracted to this app, because it plays out very well in my own experience. So because I was badly burned, and because I wrote in my books very openly about injury and the difficulties and so on, lots of people with injuries write me. And when people write me about their own injuries, what they’re trying to figure out is how do you find happiness? And how do you find meaning? 

You see, when something bad happens to you, in my case an injury, it’s very clear what you’ve lost. It’s not clear how life would play out and what kind of directions could you take, and can you hope for a good life, and in what way can you hope for a good life? So you know, I, in an amateur way, and people call me from time to time or write me, and I try to help as much as I can, but Wisdo is doing it for lots of things. And in taking this approach of saying if you have past depression, heartbreak, whatever, you understand something about that. You see the light, you can go back and say, what have you learned? And what they’re doing is they’re matching people with the wisdom of people who’ve gone through it.

So I’ve been a fan of that app, just as a saying, it’s a really nice process and it’s a very useful process. But now with COVID-19 we’ve teamed up with them in my research center at Duke, and we’re basically opening it up for free for students around the world, and we’re hoping to get millions of people to participate. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dan Ariely: And you can imagine that maybe you want to give everybody a psychologist, right. Oh, if I just had enough psychologists that would give everybody their own psychologist. However, it’s expensive, it’s difficult, it’s time consuming. But also different people have different versions. Right?

For example, I think I would be better able to help somebody who was a young person when they get injured than somebody who was already established with family and kids. A lot of my experience was, how do you find your first girlfriend after you get injured, right? What, how do you deal with that? That was not my main issue, but you know, but there are things about when you’re injured at a young age, how do you find your social place? So the idea that in society we have people who’ve been experts in all kinds of things, including things like stress and with Covid too, and we’re recruiting people to basically give advice, and we’re recruiting people to take advice. And the idea is to create this marketplace of ideas where people could help each other. 

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. And the number that I was told was 25 million. So I assume that’s related to the number of people who are using the app or in the app or something like that. So it’s a massive study, it’s a massive number of people. What have you seen? Can you talk specifically about what are the things that you’ve learned already from how young people, college students, are reacting in terms of loneliness, in terms of anxiety levels, those other feelings of powerlessness that you talked about.

Dan Ariely: Yeah. So, you know, it’s early days and I’m happy to come back and we’ll talk about when we get more results. But first of all, as you probably know, we’ve seen domestic violence being on the rise, some against women, a lot against kids, right? And it’s all ages, and the very, very sad result is that domestic violence always happens when people are together.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dan Ariely: If you look at the US and you say, what are the days of the year where there’s the most report on domestic violence? It’s basically every time people get together at Thanksgiving, Christmas, even Valentine’s Day, you put people together, bad things happen.

And COVID-19, we put more people together for more hours with additional stress.

And you know, we all have these feelings from time to time that we hopefully all manage to contain, not always easy to contain. And people are having more verbal abuse and physical abuse. And one of the things we’ve learned even about domestic violence against kids, so we’re talking a younger age, is that of course you want to reduce the abuse, but even with the same level of abuse, and that takes us to the learned helplessness, having the kids know that there is somebody who loves them helps with resilience. Because you think about the abuse, yes the physical thing, it’s terrible, but how much resilience can you have? And of course we’re trying to reduce the violence as well, but can you also increase the resilience and knowing that it’s not just you, and knowing that other people love you, and knowing that you have a support group. All of those things are incredibly important. 

So if you talk about loneliness, loneliness sounds like luxury. Oh, you know, first we need to worry about food and we need to worry about this, and loneliness is like very high in the hierarchy. No, it turns out that loneliness gives us resilience to deal with all kinds of other things.

There’s a study I think is incredibly important. It asks the question, if somebody has let’s say $15,000 in debt, creative content, and now they have $500 that they managed to save. Should they pay off some of the credit card debt or should they open savings accounts? And you know, you would say, oh, let’s pay the debt, you’re paying interest on the debt, on the savings account you get almost no interest. Pay the debt, that’s the rational thing to do. But it turns out that if you spend some of that money and you open a savings account, you increase your own ability to make future sacrifices. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Dan Ariely: You basically increase your resilience. Like you see if you’re always in debt and you always think of yourself, I’m just trying to fight to just get to zero, it’s just not a happy life. But you say, I’ve managed to do something, I’ve managed to have an impact. I’ve managed to save something. It’s incredibly useful.

So we’re finding that people are lonely and we find that resilience is going down. People are also getting fatigued. I don’t know about you, are you in lockdown mode? 

John Koetsier: Some degree of it, yes. It’s been less … people are being asked to stay home. We don’t have that many cases right now – I’m in Vancouver, Canada for those who are listening – but I work out of my home office. This is my reality right here most of the time. And my job is digital, and so it has not impacted me as much as somebody who needs to be in an office or be in a physical space for where they work, and they can’t do that and they’re experiencing income loss as a result. So I don’t have the same experience as many.

Dan Ariely: So you’re very lucky. But nevertheless, you could ask the question of whether you’re feeling… how long have you been doing this? 

John Koetsier: It’s been about a month, I think. 

Dan Ariely: Do you feel any kind of changes over time when it’s basically starting to be a bit heavier, right? And we’re finding, and not to put you on the spot…

John Koetsier:  It’s fine.

Dan Ariely: But we’re finding that sleep patterns are becoming tougher and people stay more late at night watching TV or Netflix and trying to sleep and having a hard time. People stop at more in the middle of the day, more walking to the refrigerator, alcohol consumption has gone up a lot. So it’s a tough environment. And let me say something else. You could say, okay, it’s going to go away, right? It’s Corona, you know we’re locked down, let’s say three months, it would go away. So first of all, let’s hope that it will. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dan Ariely: But first of all, it’s not going to go away. We’re going to have Corona period one, which is going to be some kind of lockdown. Then there will be Corona period two, in which we’ll start to figure out how to live with Corona for maybe about a year, and then maybe we’ll have the post-Corona period after Corona.

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Dan Ariely: But some of the habits we’re establishing now could have a lot of effects. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dan Ariely: So for example, if you are lethargic right now and not too happy, and you’re not investing time in friendship, are these friends going to be waiting for you on the other side? If you start sleeping, going to sleep very late and watching a lot of TV and reading less, by the way, I was sure that reading would go up, it turns out not really. 

John Koetsier: No.

Dan Ariely: People read more newspapers, but that’s not deep reading. That’s just this, you know, how many people have died kind of…

John Koetsier: And honestly, even though I write for Forbes, I mean, honestly too much consumption of media is a risk factor for being more anxious at any time, but especially in a time of pandemic. 

Dan Ariely: Yeah, and I try to get my students to read only in the middle of the day, and not first thing in the morning and not before they go to sleep. And to give it a fixed amount of time, just so it doesn’t expand to fill your day. So you could say oh you know, Corona time periods one is going to be limited and soon we will go to work and partial life and learn to live with Corona. The problem is that some of the habits we’re creating now could stay with us. If you’re creating social isolation, it might stay with you in the same way that a kid who gets beaten by their parents and can develop things that will stay with them for a long time. All kinds of habits could stay with us for longer. So it is important to try and deal with this as soon as possible. 

John Koetsier: There’s a question that somebody’s asked and I’m just putting it up on the screen right now: What’s a good way to deal with that feeling of loss of control? And so you talked about that, you had that personally for three years in the hospital, you didn’t control what you did. We have that now, we aren’t in full control of where we can go, how we can meet other people, where we can work. We’re not in control of when a vaccine gets developed, if it ever gets developed. We’re also not in control of the narratives that some people have around coronavirus and COVID-19 that it’s, you know, a conspiracy from this person or that person, and other things like that. How do you deal with that? 

Dan Ariely: Yeah, so everything you’ve said is right and we’re not going to get a lot of control back. The question is, can we get some of it back? And so in hospital, one way to give people control is what’s called “patient controlled analgesia” when you basically have a button and you decide when to press and that gives you medication on your time.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dan Ariely: In my case, they didn’t do it that much, but it’s a way. Now is it all of control? No. But is it some? Absolutely, yes. One way in Corona time that people are getting control is through what is called “retail therapy.” And if you think about it, retail therapy is when you give some online website your card and something gets delivered. You basically get to change the state of the world, right? 

John Koetsier: Your world.

Dan Ariely: This phone used to be somebody else’s, now it’s mine, right? Somebody delivered something, I mean you by swiping this plastic card may make an action. Now it’s an expensive way to be in control, but it’s a way to get control. And another one is to take, again, I’m not going to put you on the spot, but most of us have a list of things that we would like to change about ourselves. For example, for me, one of the things is meditation. January 1st this year, I decided this year I’m going to meditate. I spent five minutes on January 1st, at the end of those five minutesI was so stressed. I was so stressed because I spent the whole five minutes thinking about all the things I haven’t done that I’m late on, I couldn’t suppress those thoughts. At the end of those five minutes I was more anxious than I was before, and I said no more meditation. Now I know meditation is good, at some point, and I know it’s a good thing to try and work on. 

Corona time is giving us an opportunity to work on those things, and this is a sense of control. Why? Because it’s a process that allows you to see progress. If you start to meditate, it gives you progress. Another, a good thing to do is to do push ups. Why? You could see the increase, right? First day it’s maybe three and then you can move at some to four, but what you want is things that you can actually see the improvement.

John Koetsier: Nice.

Dan Ariely: Everything that you see the improvement is that process. If you’re going to do something where you’re not going to see improvement for months, don’t do it now. But if you like playing the piano or whatever instrument, everything that gives you a fast rate of learning gives you a tremendous sense of control. And kids too, by the way.

John Koetsier: Yep.

Dan Ariely: Right? For kids too, we need to do the same thing. So I told you I’m an Israelite. I came here to help the government on all kinds of Corona-related things and very quickly we learned that, you know, obviously a teacher cannot teach 30 kids in Zoom. That’s just, there’s no education there. Education has to change and giving kids control too was incredibly important. Read a book, but you can pick which book you want to read, right? Basically find like, really who cares what books they read? I mean, yes, some books we do, but in a general way if you want kids to read, let them read. If they need to study something about animals, let them pick their own animal. Does it have to be the tiger? No, it’s okay if it’s a butterfly. So basically realizing that allowing people to have some control, especially kids, is incredibly important. 

John Koetsier: Yes. Nice, nice. I like that. I’m up to 40 by the way. 

Dan Ariely: That’s great.

John Koetsier: This is why we see so many pictures of bread being made and people with their dough or sourdough and their yeast, and I don’t know all the right terminology. This has been…

Dan Ariely: Yeah, the sourdough by the way, right? It’s like it’s the modern Tamagotchi. 

John Koetsier: Yes, exactly. Love it. This has been wonderful. Maybe let’s end with one more thing and we touched on it briefly … but there’s a lot of stress that can be caused often with friends or family members when we’re talking about opening, reopening, no – flatten the curve, causes of Coronavirus, who’s to blame for Coronavirus, are we reacting well to it or not? And it gets political and it gets really, really challenging. Any insider wisdom there? 

Dan Ariely: So you asked lots of questions. Maybe I’ll answer one part of it. One question is, what is a reasonable way to start meeting people and not creating stress? So you know, you want to see your mother, but you’re stressed, your mother is stressed, how do you do it? And at this point, I think that it’s fair to say that the level of stress is higher than the level of risk.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dan Ariely: Right? And we’ve been in quarantine for a while and we’ve gotten used to, I don’t know about you, but when I see now people hugging on a movie in Netflix, I get, uh, what are they doing? It’s like a new version of a horror movie. We’ve gotten used to that distance and how close can we get, and what is okay/not okay. So I think it’s fair to say the stress is higher than reality. And now the question is how do we shrink that? We want people to be careful, but if people are way over-stressed that’s not good. So I’ll tell you what my plan is … and so I teach at Duke and we had 50 people in our research center, and when we are going to open I’m going to ask people to come every day, but even for a short time. And what’s the logic? The logic is if you tell people you don’t have to come if you don’t want to, it sounds like it’s a very nice thing. However, every day they don’t show up to work, their fears are going to just be increasing. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dan Ariely: But if they come to work, even for half an hour, and they sit next to somebody, and they went to the public bathroom, and then they figured out the next day that nothing bad happened. Or you know, a week later, you have to try something to reduce stress. If we wait for the period after Corona, we will have too many bad habits established. We will spend too much time in loneliness.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Dan Ariely: But what we have to do is we have to experience things and it’s going to be stressful in the beginning, right? And right now you could say, oh, would they hug… yeah, let’s keep safety and all kinds of things, but let’s keep on trying a few things in a comfortable way until we get used to living with this stress, but not letting it control our lives. 

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. Well, that was a great answer and I did ask a lot of questions there. Dan, I want to thank you for taking some time. I really do appreciate it. I want to thank you for doing this study as well. Super interesting stuff. 

Dan Ariely: And if you have students who are listening, they’re very welcome to join us with that. 

John Koetsier: And where should they go? Wisdo, just find the app?

Dan Ariely: Yep, just find the app and join the study.

John Koetsier: Excellent, and I’ll include the link in the story as well. Well, thank you so much. I really do appreciate it. For you who’ve joined us, thank you for joining us on TechFirst.

My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the ride. Whatever platform you’re on, hey, like it, subscribe, share, comment, all of the above. If you’re on the podcast later on rate it, review it. That’d be a massive help. Thanks so much!

Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.