How Your Emotional Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Your Behavior and Sense of Time


Listen to the World-related interview with experimental psychologist Ruth Ogden on how we measure pandemic time.

The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its 19th month, has meant different things to different people. For some, it means stress about new school and work regimes, or anxiety about the possibility of taking COVID-19 and dealing with the side effects of an infection. But for others, space and freedom have been created to pursue new passions or make decisions that have been postponed.

Our upside-down lives, for better or for worse, also probably influenced our perception of time.

In June 2020, we were part of a team of researchers who presented initial evidence that a person’s feeling of time during the pandemic was closely related to their emotions.

People who reported feeling high levels of stress and nervousness in March and April 2020 also tended to feel that time passed more slowly, but people who reported feeling high levels of happiness felt that time passed faster. (Yes, believe it or not, there were a lot of people who enjoyed spending time in confinement.)

It turns out that even during a pandemic, time flies when you have fun.

With one-year data, we were able to see how people’s views on the progress of the pandemic were related to their sense of time, their emotional states, and whether they behaved in a way that would slow the spread of the pandemic. the COVID-19.

Where does time go?

Time is of the essence. On the one hand, it is incredibly accurate and consistent: an objective measure. Every day on Earth lasts exactly 23,934 hours, the time it takes for the Earth to rotate once along its axis.

On the other hand, how we feel or perceive the passage of time is not consistent or accurate. Many people will probably agree that the 23,934 hours seem to pass much faster on a Saturday than on a Monday.

Dr. Gable has spent the last decade exploring how two closely related concepts, emotion and motivation, play an important role.

Motivation is a part of emotion and can be described as “motivation to approach” or “motivation to avoid”. The first is characterized by the tendency to relate to others or pursue goals when we experience positive emotions, such as emotion and joy. The latter refers to the tendency to distance ourselves from others when we experience negative emotions, such as sadness or fear.

Motivation to approach is associated with the faster passage of time, which ultimately makes us spend more time committed to something that makes us feel good.

Motivation to avoid is associated with the slower passage of time, which motivates us to flee from potentially harmful situations.

Under normal circumstances, these relationships help us to pursue our goals effectively and maintain our security. Think about how long you will be absorbed in a good book and how quickly you will try to escape from a threatening situation.

But what about extreme circumstances? Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, we were able to investigate during the first year of the pandemic how people’s motivations and emotions altered their sense of time.

Initial results

In April 2020, Dr. Gable and his team asked 1,000 Americans about their sense of time and their emotional experiences during the previous month.

Nearly 50% of these individuals reported that time seemed to move forward, which was strongly related to higher levels of stress and nervousness. These respondents also reported that they practiced social distancing more often. About 25% of participants said time seemed to fly by, which was associated with feeling happy and content. The remaining 25% of participants felt no change in their sense of time.

A month later, we contacted the same people and asked the same questions. About 10% of those who had previously reported that time passed slowly said that it was moving faster. And most of them said they felt relaxed and calm.

The rest of the year

With data from a full year, we were able to analyze the results for 12 months of the pandemic. (The analysis is still in the process of peer review.) We found that people who reported being relaxed, happy, and safe felt that time was passing faster.

In contrast, participants who reported strong feelings of fear, anxiety, or anger, or who felt that their lives were out of control, perceived that time was slowly passing. This feeling of slow movement of time was also associated with increased concern about personally contracting COVID-19, anxiety about whether a family member would become infected, and concern about how the virus would affect personal finances.

We also found an interesting pattern of outcomes related to participants ’beliefs about the dangers of COVID-19 and the ability to address the spread of the virus. Specifically, participants who felt that the government could effectively control the pandemic and that there were effective treatments for COVID-19 felt that time was passing faster. Participants who felt that there was an insufficient amount of medical equipment to treat COVID-19 and considered the virus to be highly lethal reported that time passed more slowly.

Then there is the way time perception was connected to behavior.

Throughout the pandemic, we discovered that when people felt that time passed faster, they were more likely to wear a mask. Meanwhile, when people perceived that time passed more slowly, they tended to avoid large gatherings.

Both limit the spread of the virus. So what could explain the probability of one behavior over another?

People who wear a mask behave more motivated by the approach, as wearing a mask does not protect the user as much as those around them. The more positive people felt, the more likely they were to wear a mask to protect others around them.

Those who avoid large gatherings adopt more self-protective or motivated behavior to avoid it. It prevents you from contracting other people’s viruses, with fear and avoidance that influence behavior.

In other words, if you see a light at the end of the tunnel, through treatments and faith in government responses, you are more likely to have an optimistic attitude and be more motivated to engage in behaviors that help others. If you feel completely desperate or feel fatal, time passes. This seems to motivate the urge to crouch down and protect oneself.

As our understanding and awareness of COVID-19 variants increases, so does our understanding of ourselves and how we behave. These findings may highlight the importance of maintaining good habits and finding hobbies that encourage positive emotions. That way, you don’t get caught up in a cycle of despair, which only gets worse with the feeling that time is running out.The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news source dedicated to sharing expert knowledge, under a Creative Commons license. Philip Gable is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Delaware and Chris Wendel is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Alabama.