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.

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.