Xenophobia, Conspiracy Theories, and COVID-19

Alexander Kellogg, Ashwini Ashokkumar, and James W. Pennebaker, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

Throughout history, epidemics have frequently been accompanied by hostility towards outsiders. As people struggle to make sense of disaster, it is tempting to seek out scapegoats, and unfamiliar others from faraway lands make for easy targets. In the United States, there is a long history of branding immigrants as vectors of disease. As the historian Alan M. Kraut has documented in his book, Silent Travelers (1994), an array of ethnic and national groups have fallen victim to this characterization, including Haitians (primarily for yellow fever and later HIV), the Chinese (for bubonic plague), and Eastern European Jews (for tuberculosis). Unfortunately, beliefs that immigrants are disease carriers have typically fueled demands for greater scrutiny and exclusion.

Another sign of this paranoia is the rise of conspiracy theories, particularly those involving foreign institutions and governments. Baseless accusations of biological warfare have been recorded as far back as the Plague of Athens in 430 BCE, in which some citizens speculated that the Peloponnesians were poisoning nearby reservoirs. Likewise, during the 1918 “Spanish Flu,” panic ensued after a public health official alleged that Bayer was contaminating aspirin with the influenza virus to further the German war effort (see The Great Influenza by John Barry). In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, claims have begun to circulate that COVID-19 was created by a lab in Wuhan, for instance, or that the symptoms could somehow be traced to 5G technology. According to a Pew survey conducted last March, about 23% of Americans believe that the virus was “developed intentionally in a lab” and further 6% that it was “made accidentally.”

The Pandemic Project

In our online survey, the Pandemic Project, we asked over 15,000 people about the extent to which they believed conspiracy theories and xenophobic narratives relating to the ongoing pandemic. Specifically, we asked whether they thought COVID-19 might be the result of a “foreign government conspiracy” or of immigrants coming to their country. As might be expected, the vast majority of our respondents rejected such notions – only 5.4% of answers indicated “A lot” or “A great deal” of agreement that a foreign government was responsible for COVID-19 and only 2.5% that immigrants were responsible. Closer analysis indicated broad similarity among adherents of both beliefs across a wide range of variables.

Who blames foreigners for COVID-19?

Our results indicate that people who blame foreigners for COVID-19 tend to be younger, less educated, more right-wing/conservative, and more likely to be male. Among these, the most dramatic differences were in political orientation and educational attainment. Politically, of those who identified themselves as “Extremely Conservative/Right-Wing,” 12.1% embraced the foreign government conspiracy theory and 6.7% blamed immigrants for spreading the virus, as opposed to just 0.6% and 0.3% of people who identified as “Extremely Liberal/Left-Wing. Similar demographic differences were uncovered in recent Pew surveys.

Table 1. Percentage of each group that agrees “A great deal” with the statements “COVID-19 might be the result of a foreign government conspiracy” and “COVID-19 is a result of immigrants coming to your country.”

In addition, respondents inclined to blame conspiracies and immigrants tended to struggle with greater financial insecurity. They were more likely to report job loss, for instance, and those who retained their jobs were more likely to lose significant income or to fear losing their job in the future. Unsurprisingly, they were also more concerned about affording medical bills (especially given that they were more likely to lack health insurance), child care, food, and rent and utilities.

What are the psychological and behavioral patterns associated with these beliefs?

After accounting for differences due to demographic variables such as age, education, gender, and political orientation, three major patterns emerge: increased emotional distress, greater use of the internet and social media, and decreased social distancing.

Emotional Distress

Respondents who blamed foreigners expressed more negative feelings in relation to COVID-19, describing it as annoying, anxiety-provoking, terrifying, depressing, and boring. Furthermore, their distress transcended thoughts about the pandemic. They experienced low moods in general, reporting increased depression, anxiety, anger, and even interpersonal conflict. They also felt lonely, despite living with and spending more time around other people. When asked to stand back and reflect, people who endorsed conspiracy and xenophobic beliefs reported a diminished sense of meaning in life and a stronger desire to make fundamental changes. However, these effects consistently appeared only after controlling for political orientation and demographic variables.


Figure 1. Emotional distress (including depression, anxiety, and loneliness) is associated with blaming a foreign government conspiracy or immigrants for the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants rated their agreement on a scale from 1 (“Not at all”) to 5 (“A great deal”).

Roxane Cohen-Silver and her team at UC Irvine have found that exposure to media coverage about a crisis tends to exacerbate emotional distress and post-traumatic symptoms. Moreover, our own analysis has revealed connections between obsession with COVID-related information and poorer mental health outcomes. People who endorsed coronavirus conspiracy theories reported spending more time watching or listening to news about COVID-19 and discussing it with others, which may be contributing to their increased negative emotion. However, our analysis is correlational and cannot provide causal insight. In other words, it is unclear whether conspiracy theories cause distress or whether preexisting distress makes people more susceptible to these beliefs.

Social Media and The Internet

In recent years, an alarming number of conspiracy theories have either originated on or achieved peak circulation through social media, most infamously “Pizzagate” and “QAnon.” Some of the most prominent promoters of the coronavirus conspiracy theories – including Alex Jones (host of the website InfoWars), Judy Mikovits (star of the viral video Plandemic), and David Icke (whose interview on the YouTube channel London Real popularized the notion that 5G could cause respiratory failure) – were already notorious for espousing a wide range of bizarre and conspiratorial beliefs and have relied primarily on the internet to spread their message. Moreover, with the pandemic in progress, people have been engaging in less in-person communication and spending more time online. A recent study by Drs. Kathleen Jamieson and Dolores Albarracin found that endorsement of COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories increases with exposure to social media and use of conservative media sources.

In our analysis, endorsement of conspiracy and anti-immigrant beliefs positively correlated with hours spent on social media and frequency of online interaction with others (outside of one’s usual circle of family and friends). Furthermore, believers reported greater reliance on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and other social media sources for information about COVID-19, but not government sources or print or online news. This suggests that these xenophobic narratives are transmitted and reinforced largely through informal networks enabled by the internet. Through dependence on one another for information and disinterest in reputable news sources, an online group can easily devolve into a self-referential “echo chamber” disconnected from mainstream society and any inconvenient facts.


Figure 2. Participants who blamed a foreign government conspiracy or immigrants for COVID-19 reported following coronavirus-related information on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites (e.g., Reddit, Instagram) to a greater degree than those who did not.

Social Distancing & Risky Interaction

Finally, individuals endorsing conspiracy and anti-immigrant beliefs practiced less social distancing and indulged in more risky social interactions. Believers reported less self-isolating and less time spent in quarantine, along with more frequent use of public transit and attendance at crowded gatherings for recreational purposes. Moreover, they engaged in more face-to-face (but not more virtual) interactions with friends and family. One reason for this disregard of safety recommendations may be the type of media these individuals prefer to consume. After all, the same far-right media sources that peddle COVID-19 conspiracy theories also tend to express disdain for preventative measures such as social distancing and hand-washing. Another contributing factor may be a diminished sense of responsibility for the health of others. If the epidemic is entirely the fault of suspicious outsiders, there is little incentive to make personal sacrifices to prevent its spread. Consistent with this, those who blamed foreigners, while personally fearful of catching and/or dying of COVID-19, exhibited considerably less concern about infecting other people or about family members getting sick.


Figure 3. People who believed that COVID-19 was the result of a foreign government conspiracy or of immigration were less likely to self-isolate (e.g., stay at home, avoid public places) or to practice other preventative measures (e.g., washing hands).


We can begin to construct a picture of who is likely to blame foreign conspiracies or immigration for COVID-19 and why. To begin with, people who lean towards the right-wing of the political spectrum may be more receptive to claims that cast foreigners or minorities in a negative light. Anti-Chinese narratives have been circulating primarily through right-wing media outlets (e.g., Fox News) and internet posts, and a combination of shared political sympathies and greater reliance on social media for information may be key to their spread. Furthermore, believers appear to be considerably less educated, making it more difficult for them to evaluate the credibility of sources and distinguish science-based claims from misinformation.

In recognition of the public health threat posed by misinformation about the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of an “infodemic” and begun working alongside companies such as Facebook and Google to combat the problem. Of course, blaming foreigners for COVID-19 is only likely to make the situation worse, not only for the scapegoats, but for the public at large. Most obviously, it will divert attention and resources from the actual issues at hand. At the same time, given the distress and risky behavior associated with these xenophobic beliefs, it may very well contribute to the spread of the disease and aggravate its psychological sequelae.

The Government and COVID-19: Anger, Policies and Partisanship

Laura Biester; The Pandemic Project, University of Michigan

The voices of government officials have been a constant presence during the COVID-19 pandemic, and unsurprisingly, most people have something to say about what their elected officials are doing. A sample anonymous responses that mention the government are listed below:

I feel that my government has not honestly effectively dealt with what they knew was coming and we are totally unprepared.

I wasn’t anxious I was confident in the plans that were being rolled out by my local government and my work.

I am frustrated that our government did not act quickly enough at the beginning of the outbreak to prevent or lessen the impact of the pandemic in our country.

In this blog post, we seek to gain a greater understanding of people’s feelings about the government response to the pandemic, and factors that may influence those feelings, including partisanship and lockdowns. We use responses to the COVID-19 survey to measure how people feel about the government at different levels (e.g. federal, state), and the ways in which those around them are responding to the situation that has upended our lives. In this analysis, we will focus on respondents from the United States, who make up more than 75% of overall respondents. We find that:

  • There is a strong tendency among our respondents to be displeased with the government; satisfaction is higher among conservatives than liberals.
  • Liberals express positive emotions towards their state governments, while conservatives express positive emotions towards President Trump.
  • Government lockdown orders have a clear effect on how people feel about the reaction to the crisis.

Who is pleased with the government: the partisan split

In one version of our survey, we asked respondents to state, on a scale from “not at all” to “a great deal,” how satisfied they were with how their government has handled the crisis. More than 50% of participants reported that they were extremely dissatisfied with how the government had handled the crisis. Among all of the questions we asked, the most strongly correlated with government response was one’s political orientation (Spearman’s r = 0.40), meaning that those who reported being more conservative were more satisfied with the government’s response. The graph below shows the percentage of respondents who report high and low satisfaction with the government response; what we find is that while the entire population seems somewhat dissatisfied (fewer than 10% in each group reported the highest satisfaction level), the dissatisfaction levels drop as respondents become more conservative.

Percent of respondents reporting satisfaction with government (by political orientation)

The partisan nature of this response is likely a reaction to how the White House has handled the pandemic. However, this does not capture the full picture; we note that there are multiple levels of government that people may form opinions on. Somewhat shockingly, we see that nobody who claims to be “extremely liberal” indicates any level of satisfaction with the government, despite the fact that many respondents are from states with liberal governors (e.g., California, ~10% of respondents). A possible interpretation is that when Americans are asked about the government response, they will only report satisfaction if they are satisfied with all levels of government; even if they are liberal and living in a state with relatively strict restrictions, such as California, they will still think of their discontent with the White House when responding. While the liberal response appears to be more focused on the federal government, the conservative response is mixed; although there may be some unease among conservatives about the federal government’s pandemic response, they may also be considering their displeasure with state officials when answering this question. In order to tease out the exact cause of these responses, we suggest that future work asks about government orders on a scale from too strict to too lenient for multiple levels of government: local, state, and federal.

Given our question about the government, we still need to confirm whether people are dissatisfied because they think that too much is being done, or because too little is being done. We therefore define the metric perception of COVID response based on survey questions that assess how people feel about the response of others in relation to COVID-19; on one side of the spectrum, we have people who believe that others are making too big a deal about COVID-19 (too strict), and on the other side, we have people who believe that those around them are not taking the situation seriously enough (too lenient). We find among those who are dissatisfied with the government response, liberals consistently believe that the response is too lenient; however, among conservatives, the responses are mixed (just like government satisfaction). This supports the idea that some conservatives who are upset may be upset with harsh restrictions, while some believe that others are being careless about the pandemic and would prefer harsher restrictions.

Perception of COVID response among respondents who indicated that they were dissatisfied with the government reaction. We codified “extremely conservative” and “conservative” as conservative and “liberal” and “very liberal” as liberal. Those who identify in the middle are not included in this analysis.

We find other ways in which this metric is related to the government’s response to COVID-19: people felt that the response was stricter in mid-April, when many states had state-wide lockdowns. However, we saw people again begin to feel that the response was too lenient when states began to lift lockdowns. This suggests that what the government does has a serious effect on people and how secure they feel in their communities.

The effect of lockdowns on perception of COVID response. We find that the number of states that have lockdowns is correlated with people’s perception of the response (Spearman’s r = .74). Values for perception of COVID response are seven-day rolling means with missing values linearly interpolated. Both series are mean normalized to appear on the same axis.

We believe that perception of COVID response is intrinsically linked to the values of individualism and collectivism; those who perceive the response as too lenient do so under the collectivist belief that others should be taking actions (staying at home, wearing masks) that negatively impact their lives for the good of society as a whole. Those who lack this perception have indicated that others are making too big a deal of COVID-19, signaling their more individualist desire to return to their previous lifestyle.

The fact that the most severe pandemic in one hundred years is coinciding with a presidential election has led to the politicization of the virus largely along these two ideals, with Republicans pushing for individual liberties while Democrats push for policies that they believe will save more lives in the long run, with an immediate cost. People tend to be unhappy with the government response to the pandemic, and its status as a political talking point cannot be ignored when considering that dissatisfaction; we now turn to looking at the specific emotions that people portray when discussing the government to examine how the government’s stance on the pandemic affects people.

Which emotions are associated with the government during COVID-19?

We examine the free-text responses in order to understand the emotions that people portray when they discuss the government. We created lists of words related to government1 in multiple ways:

CategoryExample Words
General Governmentgovernment, govt
President TrumpTrump, Donald, President
State Governors and LegislatureGovernor, Cuomo, Abbott
Partisan Politicsconservative, democrat, wing
Miscellaneousstate, CCP, propaganda
No Government MentionDoes not mention words in any government category

We identify sentences that mention these government categories and use the LIWC categories for positive emotion and three negative emotions (anger, anxiety, and sadness) to understand the emotions of our respondents towards government. Results vary drastically when considering those with different political orientations, so we carry out the analysis for both liberals and conservatives.

Average percentage of emotion words in each government category among those who identify as conservative or extremely conservative.
Average percentage of emotion words in each government category among those who identify as liberal or extremely liberal.
  • This analysis supports our hypothesis that liberals are generally angry at the President, and comparatively pleased with their state legislature. Another finding that is consistent with our earlier analysis is that liberals tend to express far more anger when speaking about the government than conservatives.
  • Conservatives tend to express positive emotions when writing about the President, and are comparatively less positive when speaking about their state government. When considering negative emotions, it is interesting that the only category in which the emotions about the state government exceed those about Trump is anxiety.
  • We tend to see that negative emotions among liberals have a clear focal point: the President, and to a lesser extent, “the government” more generally. Meanwhile, conservatives express more anger towards the government generally and partisan politics; the conservative responses falling under partisan politics tend to be directed towards the other side (66% of responses from conservatives mentioning one party mention Democrats).
  • More generally, responses that do not focus on government tend to express more sadness and anxiety, while responses that focus on government express more anger.

Looking Ahead

It has now been four months since the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, and we will continue to face debates about the competing values of individualism and collectivism. It is very likely that these debates and the policies that trigger them will continue to cause anger. While partisan politics and the upcoming election threaten to further divide the country, spurring on COVID-19 related debates on public health initiatives like widespread mask usage, we hope that as a country, we can settle into a new, temporary status-quo that will minimize deaths and be accepting of our humanity.

  1. The complete lists of words used to identify different levels/aspects of government:
    General Government: government, govt
    Partisan Politics: conservative, democrat, democratic, liberal, republican, wing
    President Trump: Donald, President, Trump
    State Governors and Legislature: Governor, legislature, all governor’s names excluding Baker, Brown, Deal, Justice, Little, and Wolf (more likely to be associated with other meanings)
    Additional words: protest, propaganda, congress, senate, China, Chinese, CCP, state, country, federal, party

A Crisis within a Crisis: BlackLivesMatter, COVID-19, and a New Sense of Purpose

Rada Mihalcea, Ashwini Ashokkumar, James Pennebaker; The Pandemic Project, University of Michigan, University of Texas

On May 25th 2020, George Floyd, a 46-years old Minnesota resident, was killed in police custody. His horrific death has sparked worldwide outrage, with thousands of protests, vigils, and rallies across the U.S. and abroad. 

George Floyd’s death comes at a crossroads in America.  It follows a number of other killings of Black Americans: Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others. At the same time, the COVID crisis has accentuated the great racial disparity in unemployment, income, and health care, which has spurred far higher death rates from the coronavirus in American Blacks than Whites.

Although the black-white differences have been known for generations, the images of George Floyd provoked a tipping point, almost overnight. Within a week, most cities in the United States witnessed marches with occasional violent behavior. Public acknowledgements of widespread systemic racism across all areas of life were made by people across races, ages, among both Democrats and Republicans, and across the ideological spectrum. 

The Black Lives Matter tipping point came during the third month of the COVID crisis. Our research teams at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin had been collecting data on shifts in attitudes and behaviors linked to the health crisis. Our research methods allowed us to quickly begin tracking the Crisis within a Crisis.  We turned to Twitter, and analyzed several million English tweets randomly drawn from Twitter at a rate of approximately 100,000 tweets per day between March 22 and June 6. Recall that the first general shelter-in-place orders were issued starting March 13.

Rising Anger

Early on during the COVID outbreak, we noticed significant emotional shifts, with high levels of anxiety and large drops in anger. Based on earlier research associated with people’s responses to the Loma Prieta Earthquake and the Persian Gulf War, we expected to see a significant increase in anger starting several weeks after the onset of COVID in mid-March. One reason for this is that during the initial news of the outbreak, peoples’ attention was on the immediate threat and most other life problems had melted away.  However, as the days, then weeks marched on, people continued feeling anxious but they now had the freedom to start looking around and seeing other issues in their lives that were problematic or outrageous.

Indeed, starting in early April, anger language increased and remained at higher levels than the early days of COVID. Beginning in mid-April, armed protests began erupting in several states by people who wanted to stop the quarantines and to get back to work. By the end of May, the brutal murder of George Floyd was a spark to the underlying rage of an even larger segment of the population.  Did the underlying anxiety of COVID cause these protests? No. However, they were likely energized by the simmering anxiety that most of us felt.

Changes in emotions at the beginning of the COVID outbreak, with high levels of anxiety and large drops in anger.
George Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25th 2020 led to thousands of protests, vigils, and rallies across the U.S. and abroad, and a major spike in anger.

Us and Them

While emotions have shifted dramatically in the span of just three months, other things stayed constant. For instance, in the early days of COVID, we saw a major increase in “we” words (including words such as we, us, ourselves) as compared to the times before the pandemic had started, indicating that COVID increased people’s collective focus. Although the relative use of “we” words decreased during April and May reflecting an increasing sense of a “new normal,” we are now once again seeing an increase in use, which suggests a tightening up of social relations during all the protests that took place over the past few weeks. In fact, the BlackLivesMatter movement has seen a swell of support among whites, and has been bringing America together in a way that COVID has not done. 

The BlackLivesMatter movement has also resulted in a sharp increase in “they” words – with words such as they, themselves, their. Of course, the first question that comes to mind is: who’s “they”? (and for that matter: who’s “we”?) An analysis of a large number of tweets reveals no clear pattern: sometimes “they” refers to the police, other times to the “protesters”, other times to the African American communities (similarly, “we” often refers to the same groups, but in other contexts). The clear increase in the use of “they” words appears to be reflective of a heightened ongoing conversation on racism: according to Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility “race talk always implies us and them.”

While “we” and “they” words have been going up, we see a low use of “I” words (including words such as I, me, myself). We have seen a clear decrease in “I” words by as much as 47% when comparing the first few weeks of the COVID pandemic with language from the previous year; the relative percentage of “I” words got even lower after May 25th, dropping by another 42%. In other words, neither crisis is about the individual selves, and this lack of self-focus holds even more strongly for the BlackLivesMatter movement.

Changes in the relative use of “we” and “they” words during the early days of the COVID pandemic (end of March) and the BlackLivesMatter movement (end of May).

A New Sense of Purpose

Along with the increase in anger and the larger number of references to “they,” we also see a new set of values being reinforced. Using our values lexicon, we measured the changes in people’s values over the past two weeks, as compared to the earlier days of the pandemic. In addition to an increase in values that reflect a desire to help others or the role of society, we notice a large increase in the value of “order” (with words such as stability, safety, freedom) and the value of “justice” (with words such as equality, justice, equity). These amplified values are a reflection of the new concerns resurfaced by the BlackLivesMovement, and the hope for change. 

The BlackLivesMatter movement has brought an upsurge in core values of purpose, order, and justice.

Above all, the BlackLivesMatter movement has brought a new sense of purpose, as reflected by an increased use of words such as motivation, aspiration, intent, goal. The heavy thoughts and feelings of those who have been oppressed for many years by overt and covert racist behavior are now being voiced during the protest movements, which gives a sense of urgency over what will happen next, and hope for justice, order, and civic change. As a recent tweet has rightfully put it “[…] so many people are risking their lives for a very good reason, so it’s things like that that’ll motivate us more, you know!” 

This crisis within a crisis has swept us across the spectrum of human emotions from a high sense of anxiety to a surge of anger. It has brought a growing sense of togetherness, and an upsurge in core values of purpose, order, and justice. Whereas in other worlds, a shared national threat such as COVID would have united us and racial strife torn us apart, we have been witnessing just the opposite: the COVID pandemic has kept us at a distance, and the BLackLivesMatter has brought us together. 

I’m not black, but I see you.

I’m not black, but I hear you.

I’m not black, but I stand with you.

I’m not black, but I mourn with you.

I’m not black, but I will fight for you.

Anonymous author, shared on Twitter

How To Get Involved and Support Black Communities

  1. Get educated on race and racism – read books, watch movies, listen to podcasts. A starting point is here
  2. Have conversations about race with family and friends.
  3. Vote in the upcoming elections. 
  4. Shop black-owned businesses.
  5. Donate and volunteer to support the BlackLivesMatter movement and equality initiatives. A starting point is here. 


Life With Children During COVID: Parents as Professional Jugglers

Rada Mihalcea, The Pandemic Project and the University of Michigan

I’m wearing alllll the hats right now – mom teacher accountant chef maid nurse – so many hats I feel like a circus act.

Anonymous parent, Pandemic Project contributor, March 2020

I am a mother of two. I am a professor teaching computer science. I am a research advisor for ten PhD students, two research fellows, and several masters and undergraduate students. I am the director of a large Artificial Intelligence lab. My first and fifth grade children used to go to school, but that’s no longer the case – so I am also an elementary school teacher. We used to occasionally go out to restaurants, and we used to have house cleaning help, but that’s no longer the case either – so I am a cook and a maid. And aside from all these, I am also me – someone who enjoys taking time to read, to learn or try new things, or simply be by myself (yes, I am an introvert).

I am just one of many. As it turns out, among the nearly 15,000 respondents who completed our survey, about a quarter (25.7%) have one or more children living with them. For all these people, what used to be parallel tracks of life –  parents or caregivers doing their work, children going to school or daycare, food being cooked not only at home but also at restaurants or sometime offered at the workplace, housework sometime done with help from others – has now been all compressed into a single track, with parents becoming full time caregivers and educators, cooks and maids, while also continuing with their work. It comes at no surprise that parents feel like full-time jugglers. Talking to many of my friends and colleagues with children, I hear them often using words like  “juggle,” “manage,” or “balance.” In fact, when the respondents to our survey were asked to talk about their thoughts and feelings related to the COVID outbreak and its effects on their lives, 26.1% more people living with children used words indicating an effort to “juggle” things, as compared to those with no children in the household.

Figure 1. Percentage of people among the 15,000 respondents who completed our survey who reported having one or more children living with them. Gender distribution is similar between the people living with children and those living without children; median age is also similar.

This constant juggling has important implications. First, it amplifies the daily life disruptions brought by the outbreak. While everyone has been equally disrupted when it comes to travel plans, social life, going to public spaces, or living arrangements, people living with children report experiencing more disruption in three main aspects of their lives: daily routines, work patterns, and their family education. This is not surprising as all these disruption patterns are interconnected: work and education are now happening at the same time, which not only disrupts both, but also disrupts the entire daily routine.

Figure 2. Percentage of people with or without children in their household who reported that certain areas of their life have been affected “a lot” or “a great deal.”

Second, it brings a different set of emotions in people’s lives. People living with children experience more stress — when asked to talk about their thoughts around the effects of the outbreak, 29.5% more people with children reported stress as compared to those with no children. This in turn is connected to more anger: 42% more people with children reported getting angry at least once during the past 24 hours (prior to taking the survey), and 34% more people with children reported having at least one argument within the household over the same timeframe. But despite all the increased stress, there is also a flip side to it: people living with children are people who do not live alone. They thus report a smaller amount of time when they feel lonely (9% less compared to people living without children). This in turn is connected to less sadness among people with children in their household: when asked to write about their COVID experience, they used 15% less words reflecting sadness, such as “sad”, “sorry”, “upset.”

Third, the juggling has the effect of bringing different aspects of life within the same space. We as parents are now trying to “keep in the air” multiple balls of responsibilities: children and work and cooking and housework and our personal selves. In the process, we somehow become more responsible for all these aspects of our lives. In fact, when asked to what extent they feel personally responsible for the well-being of others, four times more people with children indicated they felt a lot of responsibility for family as compared to those with no children. Interestingly, those living with children also feel more responsibility toward the people they work with (e.g., employees, students, customers), despite spending the same average number of hours working as those with no children: as many as 50% more people living with children reported feeling a lot of responsibility for their co-workers, which is equally true for both mothers and fathers. Very much like a real juggler, who cannot favor one ball versus another, we feel increased responsibility for all the balls we juggle with.

Figure 3. Percentage of people with or without children in their household, who reported feeling a lot of responsibility for the well-being of people in their family or at work.

Fourth, this whole juggling experience puts us in a somehow more sensitive position. We feel an  increased sense of responsibility toward all those balls we juggle, which changes our perception of the pandemic. When asked to what extent they found the COVID outbreak terrifying, 14% more people with children reported that the outbreak was terrifying  “a lot” or “a great deal” as compared to those with no children in their household.

Finally, in the process, we have become experienced jugglers. We are more efficient in what we do, and for better or worse we eventually manage to keep all those balls in the air. Despite all the disruptions in daily life and habits, the increased responsibilities, the extra load of work, childcare, homeschooling, housework, and a roller coaster of emotions, we parents are equally productive to those living with no children: when asked to what degree they have been  productive in terms of work, all our survey respondents indicated an average of 2.7 on a scale of 1-5, regardless of the presence of children. 

So here I am, one child sitting on my side, writing these findings on living with children during COVID, after a day when I worked on research, advised students, led an event, worked on first grade science and fifth grade math, played, cooked and cleaned, and found some time to read and bike. Along with all the other parents out there, I too have become a professional juggler.

What Does the Future Hold?

James W. Pennebaker and Ashwini Ashokkumar, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

It’s now the middle of May 2020. Because of the COVID crisis, much of the world has been in full or partial lockdown for two months, the global economy has been battered, and unemployment in the U.S. has reached about 15% — the worst rate since the Great Depression.

Worldwide, people are trying to adapt to the radical changes to their everyday lives. Many are working remotely. Most can’t visit their extended family, their neighbors, their local restaurants, or bars. Instead, they’re spending time on social media, watching movies, playing games, homeschooling their children, and sometimes going a little crazy.

In the middle of this crisis, there’s a clamor of contradictory ideas. Government officials, health experts, businesses, and private citizens disagree about when and how the crisis will end and, once it ends, what lies ahead. Some eagerly anticipate a return to greater freedom and economic recovery. Others report increased levels of fear, anxiety, and anger, worrying that the virus will resurge. Because of the cacophony of voices and ideas about something so unknown, a large segment of society doesn’t know what to believe.

Historians point out that pandemics often create social change, and journalists speculate whether COVID will change policy and social dynamics in the U.S. The whole world is grappling with the same critical questions: What will daily life be like when COVID is gone? Will COVID change how we think and act in the future or will we revert to life as it was before? How much economic destruction and unemployment will lie in its wake?

We are trying to assess people’s opinions about these questions. In a recent survey (Version 3 of the Pandemic Project survey), we asked about 2,500 people how they thought their lives would be after 1-2 years, once the pandemic has ended.

We wanted to know how people thought they would change some of their most fundamental behaviors related to their lifestyle, work, and social life. For each behavior, they specified how much more or less they expected to engage in that behavior, in response to the following prompt:


The results are striking. A large proportion of respondents expected COVID to change their lifestyle and daily behaviors. As you can see in the figure, about 30-50% of the sample expected to change their own activities in meaningful ways once the threat of the corona virus passed.

Figure 1. Percentage of people who will do more of the behavior (in green) and less of the behavior (in orange). Those who will maintain the same level as before COVID are not shown. So, for example, 48.9% of the entire sample checked that they would save money moderately or much more than before COVID whereas only 3.5% claimed they would likely save less money. Statistically, 47.6% responded that they would save money at about the same rate as before COVID. The survey was completed between May 1-14, 2020 (methodological details).

People complain about feeling trapped and lonely in their houses during the lockdown, but, when asked about the future, they remain connected to the security and comfort of their homes. Many appear reluctant to risk visiting crowded places or even straying too far away from their front doors. Fully 36 percent report they will be less likely to venture out to restaurants, bars, and movie theaters in the 1-2 years after COVID. Only about 9 percent expect to go out more than before the outbreak started. About 15% say they will attend religious services at lower rates and roughly 29% say they will travel to distant locations at lower rates than pre-COVID (although 18 percent will travel more).

Beyond their predictions of travel, people’s cautious states of mind are shaping their general approach to the future. They are no longer charmed by the idea of a carefree exotic life. Fewer than 10% claim they will lead more exotic and carefree lives, while almost 29% say they will change their lifestyle to be less wild and more careful.

In the same vein, people want to better prepare for unexpected events and crises in the future. About 49% of the sample plans to save more money. People expect to live healthier, more connected lives, which would presumably provide them a buffer against future threats. About 38% of the sample report they would change their lives in healthy ways. The majority of the sample say they would maintain better work-life balance. Similarly, over 30 percent would actively try to spend more time with family and friends.

The COVID crisis also appears to have affected the ways most people think about technology. Their experiences with Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and other platforms are undoubtedly causing them to reevaluate the ways they work, learn, and shop. Over 30% of the sample expects to work from home, get educated online, and use delivery services more than pre-COVID. In open-ended survey responses, some report the advantages of technological advances: they save time by avoiding commuting and are more productive in their jobs.

Possible economic implications. Assuming people have some insight into their future behaviors, the surveys portend significant changes in U.S. spending patterns. If these findings hold true, there could be profound changes in our culture:

  • Living more cautious lives. Since the last big recession in 2008, the U.S. and much of the world economy has been growing at an impressive rate. During these years, interest rates have been extremely low, which has discouraged people from saving their money. But the pandemic has shaken the people in our surveys to an alarming degree. The enormous loss of jobs, drops in the stock markets, and the long term uncertainty about the world economy are adding to feelings of insecurity. If past depressions and recessions are any guide, we can expect people to save what money they can and turn more to family and close friends for comfort and support. After being buffeted by unpredictable events, our respondents are telling us that they want to live safer and more predictable lives closer to home, with family and friends nearby and more money in the bank.
  • Shifting the nature of work. The transformative power of online communication platforms will likely have a lasting impact. Based on the numbers, many jobs can actually be done more efficiently by people at home. Occasional office meetings will be needed but does a company really need to have an entire building that remains empty 80 percent of working hours? What are the implications of cutting 1-2 hours of each person’s daily commute?

Along similar lines, one could argue that business travel may not be needed in the ways of the past. Recently, the organizers of a small conference that our group of researchers was planning to attend canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, the conference was conducted virtually. The 2-day meeting was reduced to one day and was a success. The sponsoring agency saved money and all the participants avoided a day of travel each way. (We didn’t, however, get the opportunity of enjoying green chile enchiladas in Santa Fe).

  • Rethinking online education. Online classes have gotten a bum rap by teachers and students over the last few years. Many university faculty and students have long been suspicious and even contemptuous of online courses. After two full months of classes delivered digitally, some are developing more favorable views of the online approach while others remain wary. One one hand, online education can be simultaneously provided to a large number of students, and when done well, it has the potential to be more effective than traditional teaching. At the same time, online education is less accessible to low-income groups, possibly worsening socioeconomic inequalities. For education to realistically go digital in the long term, the gaps in internet access would need to be filled.

We are all quite good at predicting the future; all we lack is accuracy. Right now, many of us are looking out our windows and imagining a different life compared to our current circumstances. The problem is that we don’t know what our circumstances will be in a year from now.

Perhaps what is most surprising is that, at most any other time, if you asked people what they might do if they won a million dollars, got a big promotion, or were told by their boss to take the year off with full pay, we suspect that a large number of people would likely endorse having a more exotic and carefree life. It’s hard to imagine that a very large number would say they would expect to embark on a less exotic life.

But this is not any other time. It’s the middle of May 2020. Hopefully, in a year from now, the world will be more predictable and understandable and we will be able to better understand how we will live in the future.

Turning inward during crises: How COVID is changing our social ties

Ashwini Ashokkumar and James W. Pennebaker, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

Over the past few decades, Americans have experienced several disasters: the September 11th attacks, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, mass shootings at Sandy Hook and Las Vegas, wildfires, and many other painful losses.

After most of these disasters, we turned to family members, friends, and colleagues for comfort over the next days and weeks. Typically, the disasters occurred quickly, over a few hours or days, and our lives gradually returned to normal after a few weeks.

But the COVID outbreak is unlike any cultural upheaval in recent memory. The “enemy” is an invisible, contagious virus that spreads from person to person. Other people, even family and friends, have become a potential danger, and two months into the crisis, we remain isolated in our homes. Coming together with others not only isn’t a comfort — it’s a threat.

As we try to maintain an uneasy balance between infection and isolation, what’s happening to our social relationships and our sense of community? Are our social connections strengthened by these hard times or is the forced isolation weakening our ties to others? And, if we manage to connect with others, who do we feel closest to?

As part of the pandemic project, we conducted a series of surveys and Reddit analyses of thousands of people to understand how our social worlds changed during the first two months of the COVID crisis. More details on the method can be found here.

Our lab studies people’s language to understand their psychological experiences. In our previous post, we analyzed people’s natural language used in Reddit conversations to track their thoughts and emotions. Here, we examine people’s conversations to understand how connected they feel with various social groups.

If people are feeling more socially connected and thinking more about their social groups, they should make references to their connections with friends, family members, and others around them. Studies have found that after disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Harvey, and the bonfire tragedy at Texas A&M, people talked more about their social relationships. What about during the COVID outbreak?

Using the language analysis program LIWC, we calculated how much each of hundreds of thousands of posts on Reddit communities used affiliation words such as we, us, our, together, and love, which indicate a focus on social relationships. As shown in the graph below, people began to use affiliation words more in the last week of February (for a detailed explanation of the timeline of COVID-19, read this post), indicating that they started to increasingly focus on their social relationships. Mid-march, around the time when shelter-in-place directives began, there was a sharp increase in feelings of social connection. Overall, COVID increased people’s feelings of social connection.

Figure 1. Affiliation words indicating a focus on social relationships (we, us, our, together) increased when the COVID crisis began, indicating that people are feeling more socially connected. February 29 was the day on which the first US death was announced. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID to be an international pandemic.

The graph raises an interesting question: Who are people feeling connected with? Who are they talking about when they use words such as “we”? They might be talking about their parents, children, and other family members. Perhaps they are referring to friends they miss. They may also be talking about their city or even their country.

To answer this question, we turned to our survey data. In a series of large-scale surveys, over 15,000 people rated how much they felt connected to various groups relative to pre-COVID times. Respondents rated four groups — family, friends, city, and country — on a scale ranging from much less connected to much more connected. As seen in Figure 2, the only group that people reported feeling more connected to during COVID is family. In contrast, they felt less connected to their friends, city, and country.

Figure 2. Relative to pre-COVID times, survey respondents felt more connected with their family but less connected with their friends, city, and country.

We then went back to the Reddit data to test whether people’s conversations reflect the same pattern. Presumably, when people feel particularly connected to a group, they talk about it. Based on this reasoning, people should talk more than usual about their family but less than before about friends, city, or country. To test this, we analyzed the Reddit comments by counting the number of references people made to each of these groups.

We measured references to family by counting words such as father, mother, brother, and so on. The graph on the left of Figure 3 resembles the pattern in the use of affiliation words. Talking about family members increased around the time when the isolation period began in the second week of March. Using a similar method to track references to friends (the graph on the right), we found a drop in talking about friends beginning in the last week of February when COVID warning signs began followed by a second drop in March when isolation began.

Figure 3. People talked more about their family (left panel) and less about their friends (right panel) once the COVID crisis began. COVID has increased feelings of connections with family but weakened feelings of connections with friends.

Is this because most people are living with their family members during the current isolation period and spending more time with them? Our data suggests otherwise. Although almost 85% of the 804 survey respondents reported staying with their family members (including romantic partners) as opposed to only about 5% who were staying with their friends, the pattern shown in Figure 2 was the same for all participants regardless of who they lived with. In other words, even the people who lived alone or with their friends felt more connected to their families but not other groups relative to pre-COVID days.

Using similar analyses, we tracked how much the same people in the Reddit sample talked about their city and country. Overall, they talked much less about their city once the COVID outbreak began. The patterns for talking about country were similar but weaker. Nevertheless, there was no evidence that the COVID outbreak caused an increase in connections to the country.

COVID seems to be dampening people’s sense of community unlike other crises such as the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Harvey which brought people together. It’s easy to blame this on the broader political division in the United States. However, as NYT columnist David Brooks notes, after most epidemics, strife is rife. During the Cholera epidemic in Naples in the 1880s, people blamed each other and various groups for the spread of the virus. John Barry’s excellent book on the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, points to tears in the social fabric during and after the outbreak of the Spanish flu.

Standing back now, over 100 years later, it is easier to understand why pandemics sowed discord in society. With death all around, little information about the virus, and no way to know who was a threat and who was not, people stayed home for months fearing the virus. Neighbors, people from other communities, and strangers from other cities and countries were particularly threatening. People suspected and blamed each other.

In periods of great uncertainty, humans (and other animals) naturally turn to family members for protection. Our data suggest that people are feeling closer to their families but withdrawing from others in the community. Unlike other collective upheavals such as hurricanes that bind society together, COVID is causing us to turn to our most fundamental relationships at the expense of more distal ones.

While strong familial ties are valuable, a dampened sense of community is not. Historical accounts of pandemics highlight the dangers of societal mistrust. How we fight our increasing urge to turn inward in the coming days will be pivotal in how COVID ends. Unlike in 1918, advances in medicine and technology equip us to make informed decisions. At the same time, we may avoid some of the darker social episodes from past pandemics through digital technologies which can help us to connect with others in our social worlds.

Notes for researchers: In all temporal graphs in this post, the y-axis represents 3-day moving averages. The survey findings in Figure 2 were significant at p < .001 and were replicated in a separate Prolific sample.

The Unfolding of the COVID Outbreak: The shifts in thinking and feeling

Ashwini Ashokkumar and James W. Pennebaker, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

Think of a major event in your life such as living through a hurricane, getting married, needing an operation. In the days and weeks before the hurricane, saying your vows, or going to the hospital, the ways you thought and behaved probably changed. You likely sought out relevant information. You talked with others who had had similar experiences. You probably felt nervous and, at the same time, ran simulations through your mind about what you would do during and after the event occurred. And, once the event happened, you likely discovered that your life changed in ways you never anticipated.

Similar shifts likely occurred with you when COVID-19 appeared on the horizon. By understanding how individuals approach significant life experiences, we can predict how entire communities and cultures do the same. The current project seeks to track how we all are thinking and talking about COVID as it unfolds over time. How has COVID shaped our emotions and thinking patterns, when did these effects begin and how are they currently evolving?

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. Way back on January 21, the first publicized case of COVID was reported in the U.S. More stories started emerging in February. And then on February 25th, world stock markets started to crash because financial experts saw a pandemic coming. The first death in Seattle was reported four days later. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID to be a global pandemic, and two days later, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

And then the world changed. Almost immediately, several cities and states announced lockdown orders, urging people to self-isolate. Universities, businesses, schools, and other organizations closed or began to operate virtually. Panic buying for toilet paper, red meat, and liquor were reported as everyone began sheltering in place.

Figure 1. Timeline of COVID in the United States

As we write this report at the end of April from our respective bunkers, many people are now looking out their windows with the expectations that they can venture out in the next few days or weeks or months.

What has happened to us over the last two months? Our research team has been tracking people through the analysis of over 750,000 Reddit comments made in eight city subreddits (or communities) posted between January 10, 2020, and April 10, 2020, including New York City, Seattle, Austin, Boston, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Portland. We’ve also analyzed surveys of over 10,000 people from snowball and samples primarily in the U.S. and Canada. For more information on our methodology, click here.


When individuals get wind of a major threat to their lives, they begin trying to learn more about it. They search for information in news outlets, they talk with their friends, and they go to online communities to learn what others know. When the news stories began appearing in January about a new and deadly strain of coronavirus, a growing number of people began asking questions about it online.

The graph below tracks how much people in our Reddit samples used words such as COVID and coronavirus. The first surge occurred when the stock market dropped (around February 25) due to economic changes in China. COVID references first shot up in the subreddits of New York City (home of Wall Street and the New York Times), and two days later in Seattle, where the first COVID death was announced on February 29.

Although references to COVID also surged in the other city subreddits, the biggest spike for all cities was around March 11th when the WHO acknowledged that we were all heading into a worldwide pandemic. Interestingly, ever since Americans moved into the isolation phase, the rates of discussions about COVID in the city subreddits have remained high and relatively constant.

Figure 2. People talked about COVID more when warning signals emerged at the end of February and also when self-isolation orders were first announced. The y-axis depicts the daily average percentage of words about COVID in Reddit comments.

When rumors of a potential threat surface, people begin asking what the implications might be for them. How serious will the threat be? When will the virus come to their city? They begin imagining how they would deal with an unknown disease in their country or community. They become focused on the future.

Once the threat arrives, people shift from future focus to present focus, as you can see in Figure 3. As it became clearer that the COVID virus was going to affect their region, people began to live in the here-and-now. Which stores are open? Where can they get toilet paper and medicine?

Figure 3. Future-focused language increased first when the warning signals for COVID emerged. Present-focused language shortly followed as the COVID crisis increasingly became part of everyday life. Time-relevant language includes verbs or references to the future (e.g., will, tomorrow) or the present (e.g., present tense verbs such as is or am or words such as now). The y-axis depicts standardized values.

A major upheaval that people have not experienced can force people to try to make sense of the event. Typically, when people are trying to make sense of unexpected events, they often use words like realize, understand, meaning, and because. Using our text analysis program LIWC2015, we are able to count these cognitive processing words to get a sense of how people are actively working through issues associated with COVID.

As shown in Figure 4, people increasingly engaged in cognitive processing starting when the warning signals began. The first peak in cognitive processing coincides with the day when US stocks first dropped. Cognitive processing also increased in the days after people began to self-isolate.

Figure 4. Cognitive processing to make sense of the situation increased when warning signals emerged and also when self-isolation began.

Anxiety, Anger, and Sadness

Immediately after natural and manmade disasters, people feel more negative and less positive. Increased anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms are also common. We tracked people’s expressions of anxiety, anger, and sadness from before to the outbreak until mid-April.

As would be expected, the expression of anxiety-related words shot up immediately after the COVID warning signals began. A second spike followed self-isolation orders. Since mid-March, anxiety has been decreasing steadily, but anxiety levels even in the first week of April were much higher than prior to the warning stage.

Figure 5. Anxiety levels shot up at the beginning of both the warning and self-isolation periods

In separate surveys that were completed by several thousand people between March 19 and April 10, we asked people what they were most anxious about. As you can see in Figure 6, people were most nervous about family members becoming infected followed closely by the fear that they themselves might unknowingly infect others. In fact, anxiety levels about COVID were much higher than people’s concerns about the potential economic losses that COVID could possibly bring.

Figure 6. Ratings in response to a series of questions asking, “To what degree are you worried about…”. People responded along a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (a great deal).

A common misconception is that natural and manmade disasters immediately make people hostile and angry, causing them to lash out at others. News media frequently interview police departments or family abuse shelters expecting large increases in violent crimes and abuse. Rarely do these numbers go up in the first weeks. In fact, reports indicate a drop in crime rates in the US and around the world.

Our findings are consistent with national trends. People’s use of anger-related words in the community subreddits dropped at the beginning of the warning stage and then again when people began to self-isolate (see Figure 7). Reports of strife and tension following previous disasters suggest that this pattern of lowered anger may not last long. Increases in gun sales suggest that people are anticipating increased conflict in the coming months. But then, gun sales with the election of Obama in 2008 surged as well but subsequent national violence statistics did not increase.

Figure 7. Anger levels dropped when the COVID outbreak began and still remain lower than baseline.

The anger patterns are a surprise for many people. In the social psychology literature, many researchers point to the powerful effects of attribution. If people are anxious and they don’t know why, they are likely to lash out at others. They know they feel bad and so they look around and pin their bad feelings on reasonable targets around them. A natural disaster or COVID is different. People feel anxious but they all know precisely why they are feeling bad. Their spouse might annoy them but there is simply too much evidence that their bad feelings are attributable to this scary virus.

However, in the weeks ahead, people will gradually stop thinking about COVID but are likely to remain anxious. The attribution literature would predict that they would start attributing their anxiety to others around them. In other words, once COVID starts slipping from the front of our minds, we will start getting angrier and lashing out at others at higher rates.

Anxiety jumping up is not surprising; anger dropping generally surprises people. How about sadness? If you look at Figure 8, the sadness results make perfect sense. We are living in a sad time: Joblessness is the highest in our lifetimes; the economy is miserable; some of our friends or relatives have gotten sick and some may have died from COVID. The pattern suggests that prolonged isolation might be gradually impacting people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Figure 8. Expressions of sadness have been gradually increasing since the self-isolation period began.

Where we are and where we’re going

We are now at the end of April 2020. We are at the end of the beginning. Most U.S. states and many countries in the northern hemisphere are just beginning to experiment with loosening their daily movement restrictions. We are all having conversations about the relative safety or danger of venturing out.

There is not a clear social-psychological roadmap. The few studies that have looked at other natural and man-made disasters hint that the next phase will be bumpy. We should expect elevations in hostility and back-biting. People will continue to feel anxious. There may well be significant diversions in the ways young and older people respond. People under the age of 30 will likely look at the statistics and think that they are relatively safe. Those who are older will continue to harbor healthy fears of contracting the disease and will be much more reticent to venture into public places.

One significant unknown is how COVID will continue to affect the economy. To the degree that consumption patterns remain stalled and job prospects are slow to return, the aftereffects of COVID may last months or years, perhaps long after the threat of the virus disappears.

Notes for researchers: In all temporal graphs in this post, the y-axis represents 3-day moving averages.

Locked indoors: What we do daily is related to mental health

Ashwini Ashokkumar and James W. Pennebaker, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

Some preliminary results are presented from an online survey of 5,626 American and Canadian respondents from the week of March 19-27, which was a week after the first shelter-in-place guidelines were imposed. Some of the noteworthy findings from the survey include:

  • On average, respondents spent approximately 22 hours in their home or a home of a friend or family member, about 1.5 hours outside, and about 20-30 minutes in commercial establishments such as grocery stores.
  • In the home, people reported spending 5.6 hours watching movies, reading, learning new skills, and other leisure activities; 4.3 hours cooking, eating, cleaning, and house and yard work; 3.9 hours on social media (Facebook, Twitter, email, texting); 3.7 hours on work-related tasks; and almost an hour exercising.
  • Most social media time tended to be devoted to watching, learning, and communicating with others about COVID. In fact, approximately 17 percent of the sample was immersed in COVID-19 topics for at least 7 hours of their day. The more people are exposed to COVID-related information, the more depressed and lonely they felt, and the more alcohol they consumed.
  • Overall, those who are coping the best with the COVID outbreak are people who are exercising at least 30 minutes a day, going outdoors, and talking with at least two friends or family members face to face or virtually.
  • Those who are having the most difficult time coping tend to spend at least 5 hours or more watching television or movies, playing video games, or engaging in social media unrelated to COVID.

Introduction and overview

The Pandemic Project is seeking to track and understand people’s everyday social and psychological states over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. Social scientists have long been interested in disasters such as 9/11, the Columbine and other massacres, the Loma Prieta and other earthquakes, wildfires, assassinations, etc. In virtually all other upheavals, people’s natural reactions have been to get together, talk, hug, and cry. Many disaster victims have reported the power of being with others to share their fears, sadness, anger, and other emotions during and after the events. COVID-19 is unique in requiring people to stay locked in their own homes and to avoid human contact with others.

From a social science perspective, COVID-19 has the elements of a perfect storm. It is a deadly disease with no cure that is difficult to track. It is an invisible virus that is silently and mysteriously transferred from person to person without their knowledge, causing terror around the world. All of us, then, are potential victims and agents of the disease. The only prevention to help the loss of life is to avoid exposure to the virus by avoiding social contact. And social contact is one of the only proven remedies for reducing anxiety and depression. Locking down entire populations changes everything about daily life — including what people do with their time, the ways they interact with their friends and family, how they work and play. This also means that the economy is on the brink of a major downturn, even collapse, causing millions to lose jobs and/or incur huge financial losses.

During the first weeks of the outbreak and quarantine, only about 15 percent of people in our research knew of anyone who had been diagnosed with COVID and about 1 percent knew someone who had died. Nevertheless, COVID-19 was a common topic of most conversations, emails, or social media posts, reflecting the enormous social psychological effects of the crisis..

COVID-19 is an overwhelming social psychological phenomenon. How are people connecting with one another? How will they change in the weeks and months ahead? What coping methods are effective and ineffective? These are the questions that the Pandemic Project seeks to answer. In this first paper, we focus on how people are spending their time in their new lives starting about a week after the first shelter-in-place recommendations/requests/orders were announced. Our findings are based on results of an online sample of 5,626 people, mostly women (80.5%), with a college degree (79.8%), who were employed full time (53%), and who averaged 43 years of age. (For details of the study, click here)

How are people spending their time?

The most striking aspect of the COVID outbreak is that the vast majority of the world population stopped their daily routines and remained in their houses for weeks at a time. Most people outside the health care sector and other essential services either worked from home or were furloughed or laid off from their jobs. Restaurants, bars, and other gathering places were closed. In the few locations where groups of people were allowed (grocery stores, pharmacies, U.S. gun stores, and other essential services), social distancing norms were mandated. Given the new movement restrictions, much of the world’s population had to establish completely new daily routines.

In the survey, we asked participants how and where they had spent their previous 24 hours. Overall, the average person spent approximately 22 hours either at their own residence or the residence of a family member or friend. The remaining two hours were largely spent either outdoors or at grocery stores and supermarkets.

Daily activities

Participants were asked how much time they spent on a range of activities in the 24 hours before taking the survey. The five primary categories of interest included work, daily household routines, leisure activities, social media, and exercising.

As you can see in the first figure, people spent the most time on leisure activities such as reading, playing video games, watching movies or TV or learning new skills, averaging 5.6 hours per day. About 21% of the sample reported spending over 8 hours on leisure activities.

Daily routines such as eating, cooking, chores, and house maintenance was the second most frequent category, taking up 4.2 hours, indicating that people are using their time to organize their homes. This was not true of all people; about 19% of the sample spent less than 2 hours on daily routines.

Figure 1. Average time spent on various activities in the 24 hours before taking the survey

National time-use studies find that the average American usually spends about 2.1 hours each day on social media. In our sample, the number was almost twice that — about 3.9 hours per day. In fact, over 11% of the sample spent more than 8 hours on social media! Previous reports that over 50% of Americans use social media to get their news suggest that the current spike reflects an increase in consumption of news related to COVID.

Interestingly, people were spending only about 3.7 hours working remotely from home. Respondents who were not students and who were employed at the time of completing the survey worked for about 4.8 hours, marking a 33% drop from the average work hours for Americans pre-COVID.

Overall, our respondents spent about 45 minutes each day exercising. About 32% of the sample did not exercise at all. Those who did averaged one hour and 12 minutes exercising.

Depression, loneliness, and alcohol use

Large-scale upheavals, both natural and manmade, are followed by spikes in stress, anxiety, and depression that sometimes last several months after the event. The most powerful antidote to anxiety is social support. People usually cling to their loved ones during times of crisis. Being forced to stay apart presumably exacerbates the mental health problems resulting from the current crisis.

Respondents provided estimates of how long in their previous day they experienced feelings of depression and isolation, and the amount of time they consumed alcohol or other recreational substances. In our sample, about 30.2% reported feeling depressed for over an hour in the previous day, and about 14.8% experienced such feelings for over 3 hours (See Figure 2). The amount of time people felt alone was similar. About 20 percent of respondents reported drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs for 1-3 hours or more in the previous day. The high numbers suggest that COVID may be having a meaningful impact on mental health.

Figure 2. Number of depressed hours in the previous day reported by survey respondents

Exposure to COVID-related information

Being exposed to traumatic images on television, social media, or in print may boost levels of fear, concerns about the future, and poorer coping. Some of the most compelling evidence for the dangers of repeated exposure to disturbing images has been reported by Roxane Silver and her colleagues at the University of California-Irvine. Over her career, she has studied people’s reactions to watching coverage of wildfires, the 9/11 attacks, beheadings, school shootings, and other horrifying events. Time after time, she has demonstrated that the more exposure people have to violent images, the more likely they will show signs of distress — often for weeks or months. Within days of orders for people to self-isolate in North America, Silver warned about the dangers of watching too much media coverage of the Coronavirus. She was right.

Our respondents estimated the time they spent reading about, watching, or communicating information about COVID. As you can see in the graph, over 45% of the sample reported spending at least 3 hours in their previous day dealing with COVID-related information, and about 17% spent 8 hours or more.

Figure 3. Number of hours in the previous day that survey respondents spent dealing with COVID-related information

What are the links between watching, reading, or talking about COVID and mental health?

Is it unhealthy to become immersed in watching and thinking about the COVID crisis? We asked people how worried they were about getting infected by the virus, dying from it, infecting others, and so on. Overall, people who spent more time dealing with COVID-related information reported higher levels of COVID-related worries.

More striking is that exposure to COVID-related information is associated with feelings of depression. Similar patterns are observed for feelings of loneliness and alcohol use.

Figure 4. People who spent more time dealing with COVID related information spent more hours feeling depressed.

Warning: we cannot be sure from our analyses whether dealing with COVID-related information causes depression. Our findings are correlational and do not provide information regarding the cause. It is equally possible that people who are more prone to depressive moods seek out COVID-related information. In fact, some compelling research on depression by Christopher Beevers and his colleagues who are in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin find that people who are depressed often seek out negative and threatening information. Consequently, our findings may be showing that depressed people are driven to find COVID-related information more than others. However, other research suggests that being exposed to frightening and depressing information can make people more afraid and depressed. Can avoiding excessive news coverage of the COVID-19 help improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression and loneliness? Our research can’t answer that question. However, you can figure out the answer yourself. If you are feeling anxious, afraid, or depressed and you are watching more than 3 hours of COVID news each day, try reducing your intake of COVID information and see if you feel better.

What other activities are related to well-being?

Of all the factors we have studied so far, exposure to COVID-related information is most strongly related to depression and loneliness, and, by extension the lowest levels of well-being. The analyses of our first wave of data collection point to other correlates of well-being worth considering. Recall that we asked people to estimate the number of hours they had spent on a variety of tasks in the 24 hours prior to completing the survey. We then compared how they used their time with a crude measure of well-being (the total number of hours people were free of feelings of depression and loneliness).

Spend a minute and think about the numbers in the table below. The three activities at the top are all associated with low well-being (and higher feelings of depression and loneliness). As a comparison, being immersed in COVID-related news and conversation is correlated about -.23 with well-being. Interestingly, the more time that people engaged in social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), even when this did not involve dealing with COVID-related information, the lower was their well-being. Similarly, lower well-being is correlated with watching a great deal of television and playing video games (i.e., over 5 hours). These effects are not related to people’s age or their gender.

The more satisfying results tell us what kinds of behaviors are associated with greater well-being among our respondents. The three most robust dimensions are going outside, exercising, and talking with friends and family (both face to face and virtually by phone, email, or Zoom or other video).

*A negative correlation indicates a reverse relationship. So, for example, the people who spent more hours on social media tended to have the lowest scores on well-being. Conversely, the more hours that people spent outside, the higher their well-being.

In the coming weeks, we will be releasing reports on more analyses. How do individual differences in gender, age, ethnicity, education level, and political beliefs shape how people are coping with the COVID crisis? What are the psychological impacts on health workers? Is COVID bringing us together or tearing us apart? To receive updates, follow this blog.

Note to researchers: All the analyses presented in this report are preliminary. All effects presented are significant at p < .001 and were replicated in a Prolific sample of ~450 participants.

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