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.