The Emotional Impact of the Coronavirus Uncovered Using a System 1 Technique

In times of change and uncertainty it can be very difficult to put your feelings into words, or even be fully conscious of your underlying emotions. Asking “how do you feel?” and “why?” are questions of limited value at the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

We need to ask questions in ways that allow us to tap into our fast, intuitive and unconscious choices—what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking.

Uncovering emotions using visual semiotics

That’s why, when wanting to understand how people were feeling about the Coronavirus (COVID-19), we used Brand Emotion—a System 1 tool for tapping into people’s unconscious feelings and perceptions. Utilizing visual semiotics, the top three emotions for the Coronavirus were identified, as well as for the regular influenza.

Brand Emotion revealed that the dominant emotion associated with the Coronavirus is “Struggle/Embattled.” That emotion is defined as “attempting to proceed with difficulty or with great effort, repressed, striving to achieve or attain something in the face of difficulty or resistance.”

“Abusive/Restrictive” is another emotion powerfully aroused by the Coronavirus. It is characterized as “Denying/preventing circumstances that would permit change, an inability to move forward.”

The Coronavirus also induces “Excitement,” but not in a good way. Excitement is a “higher state of energy, the effect of intensified emotions.”

These powerful negative emotions do a great job of conveying a sense of the struggle with a force that is overwhelming the world these days.

Picture this

These feelings were identified in an exercise in which people were presented with a set of up to 200 images and asked to select “10 images that you feel best represents specific qualities and characteristics of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The goal is not to find one picture that captures the Coronavirus but to use the 10 images when taken together represent your answer and which together illustrate the full range of qualities and characteristics of this virus.” We de-code the images selected to discover the most associated emotions.

The validated and automated decoding process also revealed that regular influenza also called up the feeling of struggle and being embattled. Where it differed is that ‘flu was linked to a feeling of “Needy/Demanding” which is defined as “increased inefficiency, weakening of support, reliance on others.” This reflects people’s personal experience with the debilitating effects of the ‘flu.


The images above represent some of those chosen by our respondents to represent their feelings. In the case of these images, it is the feelings of being embattled (the left set of 4) and restricted (right).

Feelings that span borders

We conducted the study and analysis simultaneously but separately in the United States and Canada. The Emotional Signatures of Coronavirus were identical in both nations. And in both countries “embattled” and “demanding” were the primary and secondary emotions evoked by the ‘flu. In the US, the third emotion was “excited”, as it was with the Coronavirus. In Canada it was “Sympathetic,” defined as “eliciting interest and compassion.” How politely Canadian, eh?

In these challenging times, it’s essential that we get below the surface and dig into how people really feel. Tools like Brand Emotion allow us to get past the logical and superficial and dive straight into the heart of the matter.

Applications of these findings for businesses and brands

  • Covid-19 evokes emotions around restriction and preventing change. This restrictive element is the emotional manifestation of quarantine, travel restrictions, working from home, and disruption from life as we knew it before the virus.
  • Knowing the Emotional Signature of Covid-19 allows us to tailor communications that can respect the high energy emotional state but also reach consumers in a way that offsets the Emotional Signature.
  • Communications must first acknowledge the feelings of the struggle and restrictiveness then offer a counter positive emotional position.
  • A message that your brand/product or service can alleviate, in some way, the feelings of struggle/restriction. Providing access or highlighting qualities that evoke sharing and community are fruitful areas of messaging.
  • Core to communicating during this time period is going to be overcoming the feelings of isolation. Messages of reassurance and security will counter how consumers are feeling.

These applications are all great opportunities for brands to emotionally connect with consumers as heroes.

Wondering if the results of survey research will be impacted in this difficult time? Be sure to also read: In a Time of Upheaval, Does Survey Research Still Work?

More COVID-19 Insights

In a time of crisis one thing doesn’t change: People want their voice heard.

Social distancing and germ theory: How good ideas spread.

Epidemiologists’ example: 3 lessons for insights professionals.


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