What They Learned: Laurel Benjamin

For her thesis, the psychology and Spanish double major compared how individuals in the U.S., Japan, and Mexico experienced loneliness and distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, most people in the world did less socializing to stop the spread of COVID-19. Laurel Benjamin’s thesis research found that this shared experience was felt differently across cultural groups. 

“We ended up surveying individuals from three countries—the United States, Japan and Mexico—about their experiences with loneliness and distress, as well as their engagement in various social behaviors and coping strategies,” said Benjamin “to test whether there were cultural differences in loneliness and distress during this time period and to unpack why some individuals may feel more (or less) distressed during this time.”

Benjamin, a psychology and Spanish double major and statistics minor, hypothesized that individuals in societies like the United States and Mexico that value interacting with large social networks would be more lonely and distressed as compared to individuals in societies like Japan, where relationships with close family and friends are  prioritized. However, the survey data told a different story.

It showed that individuals from societies that allow people to move in and out of social relationships at will, like the United States and Mexico, experienced lower levels of loneliness and distress as compared to individuals from societies that allow individuals fewer opportunities to move in and out of social relationships, like Japan. 

“We also found that certain factors, including the use of ‘approach coping skills’ (like social support use or positive reframing of the pandemic), perceiving the pandemic as a shared—rather than separating—experience, and social technology use partially explained this cultural difference in loneliness and distress,” said Benjamin. 

What did you learn from working on your thesis? 

I learned that there is, indeed, a way to combine my psychology major, Spanish major, and statistics minor into a single research project. My five years of research in various psychology research labs, including Dr. Wang’s Cultural-Clinical Lab at Haverford and Dr. Borelli’s THRIVE Lab at UC Irvine, allowed me to design my thesis using diverse techniques including both qualitative and quantitative methods. I was also able to incorporate my study of the Spanish language and Latinx culture as a translator for the version of this study that we conducted in Mexico. Finally, my interdisciplinary work in the statistics minor allowed me to incorporate advanced statistical techniques including hierarchical linear regression, structural equation modeling, multiple mediator path analysis, and factor analysis. 

This thesis also taught me the tenacity, communication, and problem-solving skills that are required to execute psychological research, especially a cross-cultural project like this one. In order to collect data from Mexico and Japan, we relied on a team of four bilingual translators who helped us to make sure our study was accessible and culturally relative, and helped us to navigate the online crowdsourcing websites from which we recruited participants. This project would not have been possible without the tireless work of our student translators Noelle Mahr, Kaito Nakatani, and Zarin Mohsenin, as well as Kate Petrova, who provided invaluable statistics guidance on structural equation modeling.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

This is the first study, to our knowledge, to examine the social, cognitive and behavioral factors underlying well-being during Covid-19. These results have the potential to inform clinical interventions and public policy in the wake of future global crises, suggesting that fostering constructive coping strategies and spreading messages of togetherness may be psychologically beneficial. Our results help to broaden the growing understanding of how culture, stress, coping processes and psychological health may be intertwined during a global crisis, which helps to gear researchers, policymakers, and the public for future ones.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.