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.