Anxiety

Too Anxious to Keep Quiet

In the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot has decreased. But what has actually increased?

Posted Apr 05, 2020

If you're like me—and most people in the world—you're probably feeling a little anxious. You know, because of that whole "general state of the world" thing right now.

A dangerously contagious virus. Economic downturn. Being out of new series to watch on Netflix. And when we feel anxiety like this (or otherwise), it can have a big impact on our attitudes (i.e., our opinions on things) and what we do with them...

So what has COVID-19 done to your attitudes?

Hear Me, Hear Me!

One impressive and relevant study was done by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman in 2012. In it, they wanted to find out which New York Times articles were most likely to go "viral." In other words, they wanted to know which of people's attitudes (i.e., their positive or negative opinions on these articles) were most likely to be shared with others.

To study this, the researchers took all the articles that appeared in a three-month time period for The New York Times (6,956 articles!) and coded them for the different kinds of attitudes people had toward the articles.

And after all this work, the researchers made a very interesting discovery. Certain and specific types of article-relevant attitudes best predicted an article's virality: attitudes based on feelings of awe, anger, and/or anxiety about the article.

But why these three emotions? At first glance, they all seem pretty distinct. Yet, when you look closer, they share an important, underlying quality: All these emotions are described as "high-arousal" emotions.

"The Buzz"

Researchers from all over the world (I and my own work included!) have been fascinated with trying to understand which types of attitudes people are most likely to talk about with others.

Is it your attitude toward the new quarantine rules you can't stop telling others about? What about your attitude toward going to the grocery store these days? In marketing, these highly discussed attitudes are often described as "the buzz." So, what makes a particular attitude buzz-worthy?

As we saw with the first study, when a person's attitude toward a topic is based on high-arousal emotions (i.e., emotions that induce a feeling of energy or activation), they're more likely to be shared. For example, although feeling sad and feeling anxious are both negative emotions, researchers find that attitudes based on anxiety (vs. sadness) are more likely to be talked about. Anxiety is a more high-arousal emotion!

Now, what's fascinating is that a multitude of studies has shown this link: Attitudes based on high- (vs. low-) arousal emotions are more likely to be shared. However, only recently did we discover why high-arousal emotions produce such a buzz…

The Buzz After the Buzz Matters

I and my colleagues, Xiaoyan Deng and Rao Unnava, were fascinated with this question, and so we conducted a series of experimental studies to figure it out.

In one study, we had participants either text or not text their friends about an attitude that was based on a negative, high-arousal emotion (e.g., anxiety). Afterward, we measured people's feelings of arousal regarding that attitude.

What we found is that people who were able (vs. not able) to express their high-arousal attitude felt better afterward. Specifically, sharing that negative, high-arousal attitude with friends helped them reduce the arousal they felt when thinking about it.

So, when it comes to your attitudes relevant to COVID-19, you're likely talking about them more than you would have ever before. For example, you may be talking a surprising amount about your attitudes toward grocery stores, because these attitudes are now based on newly founded, high-arousal emotions.

Talking the Anxiety Away

Importantly, research shows that simply expressing your attitudes based on high-arousal emotions can help you reduce that arousal to feel better. For example, even if you don't express your high-arousal based attitude to others, simply writing about it in a journal can help reduce the unpleasant arousal associated with it. (Though research suggests that writing in a journal doesn't work as well at making you feel better compared to sharing that same attitude with a sympathetic friend.)

So, although COVID-19 has decreased a lot of experiences for us, one thing it has increased is how much we're expressing our attitudes on anything related to this high-arousal emotional source!

Bonus Knowledge: Today, we only discussed one of the many impactful (and unexpected) effects that high-arousal emotions can have on our opinions and behaviors. But once you better understand these effects, you can utilize high-arousal attitudes to your advantage. So, if you liked what you read and want to learn more, consider checking out another post of mine, where I discuss some of social psychology's most famous and influential studies on arousal and our attitudes based on it.

References

Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral?. Journal of Marketing Research, 49(2), 192-205.

Teeny, J., Deng, X., & Unnava, R. (2020). The “Buzz” Behind The Buzz Matters: Energetic And Tense Arousal As Separate Motivations For Word Of Mouth. Journal of Consumer Psychology.