Revealing the Hearts and Minds of Americans in a Time of COVID-19


In adjusting to life in a time of pandemic, there are some obvious concerns: the health of your loved ones and yourself and getting the groceries you need. Those we all acknowledge. But what is lurking in the shadows of our minds is an unspoken concern about the fundamental underpinnings of our society: public order, the economy and the function of government.

We measured the implicit and explicit feelings of Americans in an exercise designed to capture the choices people make, and the unspoken concerns their pattern of answering exposes. In doing so we captured the fast, instinctive and emotional reactions of what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, as well as conscious, logical and effortful System 2 thinking.

The chart below details the results of having people articulate their concerns about the COVID-19 crisis through two different exercises: Maximum Difference scaling (MaxDiff) and Implicit Association Testing (IAT).

The vertical axis indicates the items people choose from the MaxDiff exercise as being the greatest and least concern. In this task people were presented random sets of 5 of these matters and asked to choose the greatest and least concern, which allows us to calculate a ranking. These are our logical or System 2 choices.

The horizontal axis indicates how automatic or intuitive our choices were when asked to select if we are very concerned about that topic or not. This is a measure of our System 1 thinking.

Here’s how to think about each quadrant:

hearts and minds

Our analysis reveals that worries about the health of our family and loved ones is both a rational and emotional concern. Logically, we are also concerned about our own health, our family’s mental health and making sure we have enough food to eat. But emotionally, the cluster of items in the bottom left hand corner—public order, the economy and the functioning of government—indicate an unspoken worry about the ongoing function of our society. It’s a set of concerns we don’t want to admit are bothering us, but our actions reveal that these are profound emotional anxieties. These findings underscore the importance of measuring both System 1 and System 2 thinking.

An earlier look at the emotional impact of the pandemic itself 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.”

It is this force, bearing down on the world, that has people fearing for the ongoing function of society. While control over society is not in the hands of any one individual, organizations can be important social actors. They have a unique opportunity to quiet our concerns by communicating in ways that promote a sense of community.

In the UK, we used Brand Emotion to determine what people want from an ideal company. That research suggests people are looking to organizations to promote co-operation and empathy, and to bring comfort in these trying times. We believe these insights apply in the US as well.

Our probe into the hearts and minds of Americans suggests that organizations’ communications must acknowledge people’s concerns about their health and the health of those they love. But it also reveals that it is vitally important to communicate messages of hope and of faith in our society. By banding together and fostering a sense of community, we can help quell those fears lurking in the back of people’s minds. In these trying times, messages of unity and a “we are all in this together” mentality can lift us all up—because together we are stronger.

To see how Maru/Matchbox is keeping a finger on the pulse of how businesses and consumers are managing in the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 research hub.

next post thumbnail