Emotions, Psychology and the COVID-19 Outbreak

In today’s digital era, the emotional connection between humans and technology was strong even before the COVID-19 outbreak. However, it has emphasized the role of digital technology as a vehicle to connect emotionally. When people leverage social media to express their feelings, they are interacting with digital technology. That process creates an emotional connection between them and the underlying digital technology. However, what happens when your only link to the outside world is digital? 

Some psychological studies have used big data to quickly identify those in need of emotional care, for example, that are suffering from depression, disposed to suicide, or experiencing domestic violence. For the most part, the big data analysis works, and the next step is to get those in need of the offline care they require. Digital technology, in this case, while it helps identify those in need, is not the remedy itself, it requires an offline social network that can provide the support they need.  

The COVID-19 outbreak has cut off most or at least some of the physical contact offline. For those forced to home confinement, the question becomes: can offline and physical support be replaced by online and an entirely digitized emotional support network. Disruptions to the offline social network have intensified people’s reliance on digital technology and intelligent technology. That may be a significant change to the emotional connection between human beings and digital technology.

What people are going through may alter the way they interact with digital technology emotionally. When life is finally back to normal, they may find their selves even more attached to digital technology, especially as it has replaced a friend who might have helped support them through hardships. The emotional connection between human beings and digital technology will become stronger. We are certainly not waiting for that to happen. Psychology depends on descriptions, interpretations, and predictions to achieve the goal of intervention and control. We can adopt some strategies and methods to enhance the emotional connection between human beings and digital technology. Psychologists believe that behavioral changes precede changes to attitudes and emotions. If people have no choice but to use digital technology, they will gradually get used to it, with their opinions and feelings about it will change over time. That is precisely the case that we see now.

Another noteworthy point about psychology is that it stresses human needs. If the online network is adequate to meet human needs that are satisfied with the offline social network, it will naturally set up a more profound emotional connection between human beings and digital technology. Digital products should be designed in such a way that they help establish an attachment that their users have towards them. To that end, efforts should be made to introduce more individualized scenarios.

Generally speaking, in China, people have come to embrace digital technology attitude-wise and behavior-wise. However, emotions are more psychologically profound than attitudes. In this case, people have already established deep emotional bonds with technology. Take, for example, that computer in your pocket that you cannot live without — your cellphone.

However, going forward, there is much room for digital technology to make a difference in the domain of psychology. We still do not have a clear idea of what the outbreak means for intergroup relations when it comes to, for example, how things are unfolding as migrant workers gradually return to work and how doctor-patient relationships will change. Intimate relationships may never be the same; marriage rates, divorce rates, and fertility rates will all change. In the digital economy, it gives us pause to muse on what can be done to influence intergroup relations and exert some impact.

The trends in human-digital relations have a lot to bear on what psychology studies in the future. Some of my fellow researchers say that psychology is all about studying human brains. When we look into groups, we are examining how human brains interact with one another. Maybe future studies should focus on the interaction between a human brain and an intelligent brain, putting digital technology on the same footing as human beings. That could be a trend in the evolution of the emotional connection between human beings and digital technology. It has a significant impact on information and business because behavioral stickiness arises from a strong emotional connection. What follow may well be fundamental changes to human-digital relations.

The author Jie Zhou is an associate researcher with the Institute of Psychology, CAS. This article was compiled based on the speech that she delivered at Luohan Academy’s Workshop Series About Digital Survival amid the Coronavirus Outbreak.

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