Food Trends Friedman Research Uncategorized

How the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced student coffee consumption

NICBC student Thanit (Pao) Vinitchagoon explores why students change their coffee drinking behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of Theories of Planned Behavior.

COVID-19 has changed people’s lives rapidly—including mine as an international student currently living in Boston. Distance learning and self-isolation are not things I expected to practice until recently. A couple of weeks ago, I was eating Korean fried chicken at a restaurant with my friend after an “in-person” exam. Now, I have to prepare for a “virtual” exam on Zoom, while also preparing food, as ordering meals all the time is not an affordable option. One thing I noticed is that I have been drinking more coffee since the lockdown began. Interestingly, some of my friends also have been drinking more coffee, while others have been drinking less. I pondered this difference in response.  I then wondered if behavioral theory could help explain it. With these thoughts in mind, I analyzed coffee drinking behaviors using the framework of Theories of Planned Behavior (TPB).

According to the TPB, performance of a behavior is shaped by an intention—that is, a person with a higher intention towards performing the behavior is more likely to end up doing that behavior compared to a person with lower intention. Intention, in turn, is formed by three constructs: attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. I will go over these constructs and explore how changes in each construct may influence the intention to drink coffee.

Figure 1. Theory of Planned Behavior Framework

First is attitude—an overall evaluation of the behavior. Attitude consists of several behavioral beliefs, and the evaluation of outcomes for each belief. In this case, some students may feel that caffeine helps them survive many hours of Zoom classes. If they value those classes, this will shape their attitude toward drinking more coffee. In contrast, some students believe that caffeine consumption increases anxiety (which may already be increased during this pandemic). As anxiety may not be something they want, this will shape their attitudes toward drinking less coffee. Some students may feel that they need caffeine to wake up early. Now, waking up early might not be valuable anymore because they do not have to commute. Therefore, this may actually shape their attitudes toward drinking less coffee. Students may feel a combination of attitudes at the same time, but the one they value the most will shape the overall attitudes toward drinking more or less coffee.

Second is subjective norms—a perception of whether people close to students think they should engage in the behavior. Subjective norms consist of normative beliefs and motivation to comply with each belief. Some students may now be living with their parents or significant others who they believe do not want them to “overdo it” on caffeine. If their motivation to comply with their parents or partner is high, then the chances of them drinking coffee will be lower. On the other hand, some students may feel the need to drink more coffee to remain social because their peers talk about how they have started making fancy coffee during this pandemic.

The third factor is perceived control—a perception of the level of control over performing the behavior. Perceived control consists of control beliefs (chances of facing factors that will facilitate or constrain the behavior) and perceived power (perception of how easy or hard the behavior will be, given those factors). For example, one student may believe that they can get coffee easily because they have a coffee machine at home. Another may believe that it is harder for them to get coffee because they need to go to a coffee shop, and the only ones open are drive-through shops that are farther away. Or, both may have a coffee machine in place, but having to brew their own coffee versus having some already brewed by a roommate (who is willing to share)  influences control beliefs differently.

As you can see, even a simple behavior like drinking coffee can be analyzed using TPB. You may wonder why I am interested in this analysis. The answer is that if I know the reason why I do something, it is much easier for me to identify areas that I can change. If I want to reduce my coffee consumption, maybe I should tell my roommate not to brew extra coffee. It can also be that I should find someone I trust to remind me not to drink too much coffee. Or, I just have to find alternative ways to stay awake that will not also increase my anxiety. Because different people have different reasons, I learned that what works for me might not work for others. And when I know more, I tend to have fewer egocentric judgments toward others. I should not be judging people if they cannot follow my own advice. At the end of the day, I believe that if I start with a better understanding of small behavior changes, it may help me understand why people behave differently with more significant changes in life.

Thanit (Pao) Vinitchagoon is a U.S.-based Registered Dietitian who worked in a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, for a couple of years before joining the Friedman School as a Ph.D. student in Nutrition Interventions, Communications, and Behavior Change. His interest is in eating disorder prevention and the “non-diet” approach to nutrition and health. He enjoys eating out occasionally in different places (though not now in the period of physical distancing) since experimenting with new foods (for him) is very fun! 

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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