"Word" War III: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Unconscious Mind

Our research sought to identify the unconscious metaphorical frames that shape individual perceptions of the COVID-19 crisis, and how these frames differ across generations. We learned that Gen Z views COVID-19 as a catastrophic force, while Baby Boomers interpret it as a prolonged journey. This has profound implications for how public health and other communications leaders can meaningfully engage these segments and effectively change behavior. Our report includes strategies to address these unconscious frameworks.

Why was the research conducted?

In the face of an unprecedented health crisis, we believe it is critically important to understand the unconscious sentiments surrounding COVID-19. As humans, we often struggle to articulate our thoughts clearly, especially in times of crisis which tend to trigger intense emotional reactions. Rationality is the first to go out the door, as evidenced by our current shortage of toilet paper. We are not great at knowing why we feel the way we feel, and language alone deprives public health officials, business leaders, and communications professionals of the insight they need to deliver messaging that is both empathetic and effective in changing behavior. The pressing need for this type of understanding prompted us to conduct this study.

How was the research conducted?

Data was collected via Simile, our proprietary tool for quantitative metaphor elicitation at scale. Respondents were prompted with a series of
questions related to their thoughts and feelings about how COVID-19 is impacting their lives and prompted to select images that reflected
these sentiments. This data was then analyzed for metaphor and manually tagged by a team of highly-trained Olson Zaltman analysts.

We recruited n=274 respondents in the US, comprising two distinct demographic segments: The youngest adults, those 18-25, were approximately half of the sample. Their elder peers, those aged 60-72 represented the other. This sample’s gender distribution was roughly balanced.

What are the key findings of the research?

  • Gen Z and Boomers both feel an acute sense of disconnection from others - being suddenly deprived of socialization creates a sensation of confinement, while being isolated from others creates loneliness and stress
  • Boomers largely view the COVID19 outbreak through the metaphor of a "Journey", which while painful, can be overcome if they bide their time. They believe there's a light at the end of the tunnel and adopt a largely passive approach.
  • Gen Z feels the current situation through the metaphor of "Force", feeling the impact as physical blow or war, robbing them of future certainty.
  • Messaging can be tailored to reach these groups: Gen Z through empowerment to fight, connection, and internal balance; Boomers through proactive, connected journeys, filled with small wins.

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Contributor's Name: Jessica Kukreti