Covid-19: how coronavirus has affected our emotions.

Posted by Nick Saxby on the 5th May, 2020
In the face of threat our implicit attitudes come to the fore, our emotional brain takes hold and the commonalities of our survival instincts are shown.

2020 should be a year where our individualism is again taken to another level. We like to think we live in a world where we’re all different from one another; different views, perceptions and preferences. However, insights from our survey measuring the public’s reactions towards COVID-19 show in times of threat or stress, there are some common traits to the way our brain responds at an emotional level.

Our study tested a nationally representative sample of 1000 respondents, looking at perceptions towards COVID-19. To uncover the emotional conviction of respondent’s responses, the study used implicit measurements. When answering statements around the impact of coronavirus, we measured what they said, and the speed of their response. This enables a better understanding of attitudes, not just someone’s explicit response towards a statement.

Neuroscience has taught us that on the surface it may seem one has a strong opinion towards something, yet Reaction Time testing can uncover a difference in response. Such measurements are interpreted with a faster reaction time being an indication of a higher quality connection between rational and emotional views, thus leading to stronger opinions, more durable attitudes and more accessible solutions which result in a deeper influence on behaviour. Slower answers, on the other hand, can indicate the reverse. Here we will compare total agreement scores for statements against the speed of their response, giving us a ‘fast yes’ score.

How COVID-19 highlights the commonalities of our survival instincts.
Social constructs draw differences in the way we perceive the world. The amount we earn, our social class and even our age alter how we emotionally react to certain scenarios. However, results from this study found otherwise. At a conscious, explicit, level this remains true – statements that tap into fear, concern for others, our financial situation and even positive stories vary between subgroups. Yet, when we look at the emotional conviction of responses, we see little differentiation. In the face of threat our implicit attitudes come to the fore, our emotional brain takes hold and the commonalities of our survival instincts are shown.

Take the long-held nature vs nurture debate: are we driven by our genetic makeup or are we shaped by our environment? Such debates usually end with “a bit of both, I guess”. However, insight from this study has shown that when we are faced with a challenge like COVID-19, our implicit reactions take over and it seems as though we react as nature would predict.

What the data tells us: how social constructs are removed.
One example of this difference, or lack thereof, is between the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ social class. Had we not been in a pandemic we’d expect statements that ask about health and social unrest to show differences explicitly and implicitly due to access to healthcare, education and amenities. This isn’t the case. At an conscious level, yes, we see differences. However, when taking a look at fast yes scores we see our emotional reactions are similar, our biology takes over.

Higher = AB – those that work in higher managerial or professional occupations // Lower = DE – those that work in semi/unskilled manual occupations or are unemployed.

Gender differences and our emotions.
We mentioned earlier the influence of biology on our reactions, and one subgroup that did show a difference on an emotional level was gender. Studies have found differences in the way that the male and female brain respond to stress. Research has shown on average, men are more likely to try and tackle a problem head on as they experience a ‘tunnel vision’ effect. Women, on the other hand, usually show more empathy and see the bigger picture in the face of threat. How valuable these ‘attributes’ will be, in COVID-19 world, remains to be seen.

What the data tells us: tackling the unknown.
When asked about statements such as ‘I’m worried about the health of older family members’ women’s fast yes scores were much stronger than that of men’s. When looking at those with children under 5 years old, these findings were amplified further, see below. In the face of threat, the female brain is programmed to dial up its protective instinct and show care and awareness towards the social dangers this virus may bring, this insight supports the thinking that the average man doesn’t share the same instinctive reactions.

A further look into the concern parents have for the health of their children intensifies this. Explicitly, both men and women show similar responses towards the statement ‘I’m worried about the health of my children’, yet when we dig deeper into their implicit responses towards this statement, the instinctive reactions which differ by gender are pulled apart. Reaction time testing can uncover an implicit response, which in this case is driven by the differences men and women experience biologically.

The need for brands to understand our human response.
The findings of this study have shown how in times of stress, social constructs hold little influence over our emotional response, we respond as we’re biologically programmed. COVID-19 is activating our basic needs and emotions, changing our perception of the world. Recent results from our Understanding the Nation research show the behavioural changes we’ve seen from the influence of the pandemic, another Walnut article identified that during this time of stress ambiguous communication can damage brand authenticity. Brands need to understand the influence our emotional brain is having and leverage such understanding. Brands or products that do so can be the real winners in these times.

The method used in this study was able to highlight the need to go deeper, particularly in times of uncertainty. The differences between what people say and how they truly feel has long been debated: on the surface, data collected may explicitly point to one conclusion, but are you getting the full story with just claimed behaviour? Implicit measurement, and specifically reaction time testing, is one of many neuroscience tools that allows us to tap into unconscious emotional responses. In the context of coronavirus, where emotions are high and easily triggered by near-global uncertainty, it is this emotional response that is the most telling.

Meet the Author: Nick Saxby
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