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:

scale

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 Prolific.co samples primarily in the U.S. and Canada. For more information on our methodology, click here.

COVID IS COMING! COVID IS COMING!

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.