Jessica Zhu

Jessica is a first year Psychology student at King’s College London, with an interest in social psychology and education. Contact Jessica

Early 2020 was a time of heightened emotions with the emergence and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty swept through the world as reports of case counts and everchanging restrictions dominated the news headlines everywhere. As individuals, we all experienced the emotional impact of the pandemic, but how did it affect our emotions at a collective level? How did entire populations respond to this global crisis while it was unfolding in real-time?

Tracking Collective Emotions on Social Media

A team of researchers at the Sociocultural Research Lab, led by Dr Apurv Chauhan at King’s College London, conducted a study investigating these questions. They analysed over 10 million messages about the COVID-19 pandemic posted on Twitter (now, X) from 16 countries during the first 120 days of the pandemic. The research treated the first confirmation of human-to-human transmission on 20 January 2020 as day 1. Using the the words people used to talk about the pandemic in their tweets, this team developed a novel way to systematically track levels of anxiety and positive emotions that were expressed on social media each day.

The study used a psychologically validated dictionary of the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software to identify the proportion of words from each country that indicated either anxiety or positive emotions. As the dataset contained over 200 million words, this provided the researchers with a good proxy for estimating collective  emotions at the level of countries. Given that Twitter (now, X) posts are dated, the researchers were able to develop daily estimates of collective anxiety and collective positive emotions in each country.

With time series data on estimated levels of collective emotions, the study set out to identify structural breaks, which are points in time where the levels of anxiety or positive emotions abruptly shifted. When analysing time series data, a structural break is where a stable pattern instantaneously changes in a meaningful way. For example, if a person’s heart rate is plotted over time, a structural break would appear if the person went from sitting to running and their heart rate suddenly increased. In the current study, these signalled the presence of real-world events that significantly impacted the collective emotions of a country.

The Impact of the WHO Pandemic Declaration

The results were revealing: between 9 and 17 March, collective positive emotions rose abruptly cross all 16 countries, defying the preceding pattern. What is more, anxiety levels also fell abruptly and suddenly in 12 of those countries. This allowed the researchers to hypothesise that a globally significant emotional event related to COVID-19 took place in this period. An analysis of relevant events indeed revealed a key milestone – the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March.

Collective emotions changed in all 16 countries around WHO declaration

This declaration had global, wide-reaching emotional significance; yet interestingly, it was not one of creating panic or confusion, but of reducing collective anxiety and enhancing positive emotions in most countries. It seems surprising that declaring a global pandemic would actually have a positive emotional impact, as there were concerns that announcing emergencies such as epidemics and pandemics would increase public panic. However, delving deeper, the study argued that the declaration provided a sense of clarity amidst the unprecedented period of uncertainty. In a time when no one properly understood the novel situation, hearing confirmation of its nature, albeit that it was an emergency of unmatched proportions, and signals of coordinated response from authorities likely reduced people’s confusion and endless speculation. We also know from studies using questionnaire measures that the human brain tends to respond to ambiguous situations with increased worry and distress – lessening that ambiguity thus contributed to lowering anxiety levels.

Insights for Crisis Management and Resilience

Moreover, structural breaks in individual countries also revealed how declarations of national emergencies and restrictive policies affected collective emotions. Many countries, including Colombia, Germany, Nigeria, and the United States, exhibited emotional changes coinciding with such major announcements from their leaders. Those structural breaks all marked significant reductions to anxiety and/or increases in positive emotions, again supporting the conclusion that those decisive actions provided a sense of assurance and guidance instead of inciting additional worry.

As expected, five countries showed significant reductions in anxiety or enhancements of positive emotions in response to economic support packages being provided for those affected by the pandemic. Unemployment, wage cuts, and business losses had great financial impacts on countless numbers of people, thus it is understandable that government support would have positive impacts on collective emotions. It also points to the multifaceted nature of the pandemic’s impacts; not only were people concerned for their health and safety, but their financial livelihoods were also a prominent stress factor.

The study is an important advancement in researching collective psychological phenomena, with its novel use of social media data to track something as abstract and large-scale as the emotional states of entire nations. It offers insight as well as an opportunity to reflect on how humanity experienced the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic collectively. From the enhanced understanding of how people process uncertainty and react to developments in global events in real time, several important take-aways are provided to government officials and organisations regarding how to handle future crises or disasters.

Ultimately, although the pandemic may have felt like a time of isolation for many, this research underlines how interconnected people’s emotions and collective experiences remained. Analysing emotional states at large scales can contribute valuable directions for mitigating distress and reinforcing resilience on a societal level.


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