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Natural Language Processing Uncovers Silver Linings In The Covid-19 Pandemic

A new research article forthcoming in Frontiers in Psychology sheds light on some of the pandemic’s unforeseen positive consequences — such as a newfound appreciation for working from home, finding solace in a slower pace of life, and working closely with community members to achieve a common goal.

“We identified positive aspects, or silver linings, that people experienced during the Covid-19 crisis using computational natural language processing methods,” say the authors of the research led by Stanford University’s Juan Antonio Lossio-Ventura. “These silver linings revealed sources of strength that included finding a sense of community, closeness, gratitude, and a belief that the pandemic may spur positive social change.”

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers fielded a large-scale online survey on three social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and NextDoor) in which they asked participants to respond to the question, “Although this is a challenging time, can you tell us about any positive effects or ‘silver linings’ you have experienced during this crisis?”

They used a combination of computational and qualitative methods of natural language processing to identify themes in participants’ text responses. (For readers unfamiliar with natural language processing, it is a technique used by researchers to extract meaning from large quantities of text such as millions of Facebook comments or Tweets.) They then assigned each of these themes a “sentiment” score, based on how positive or negative their algorithm rated the theme to be.

As expected, they found that the average sentiment of participants’ responses was positive when describing the pandemic’s silver linings. Moreover, women’s responses were slightly more positive than men’s responses.

The researchers grouped participants’ comments into nine main categories, listed below and ranked from most to least common.

  1. Spending quality time with loved ones (example comment: “I’m in touch with my family who [lives] faraway a lot more. Kids are starting to help more in the house with cleaning and cooking. I’m getting two walks a day with my husband therefore having more quality time together!”)
  2. Life slowing down (example comment: “Having real time to do nothing, guilt- and FOMO-free, and the headspace to take up low-stakes hobbies just for fun, as in caring more about enjoyment than talent.”)
  3. Community coming together (example comment: “People reaching out to friends and family to make sure they are okay, physically and emotionally. People helping neighbors who can’t go to the store on their own. People saying hello (at a safe distance) on the trails, respecting the rules but also the importance of staying friendly/being civil. People ordering from local restaurants and other ways to keep local businesses solvent.”)
  4. Feeling gratitude for what people have (example comment: “Appreciating the small things in life that have disappeared.”)
  5. Benefits of technology use (example comment: “Friends and family members are getting much better at technology and joining me on Facebook and Instagram where I’ve always done a lot of my socialization. So my physical contact with the world is a lot smaller but my community also feels a lot bigger and closer now.”)
  6. Benefits of working from home (example comment: “I don’t have to drive 1.5 hours to and from work daily.”)
  7. Improved health and health literacy (example comment: “Trying to prioritize sleep and my physical and mental well-being. Doing all my cooking at home and not buying take-out/restaurant/convenience food.”)
  8. Impetus for positive social change (example comment: “My therapy and psychiatry firm previously refused to do appointments via telehealth. Given the pandemic, they have been forced to adopt telehealth practices. I’m hopeful that they will continue this practice afterwards.”)
  9. Positive environmental impact (example comment: “Greenhouse gas emissions are down.”)

“In a time of limited resources, understanding the silver linings that have given people hope, strength, and solace can inform efforts to support individual and collective recovery from the psychological and emotional challenges of the pandemic,” say the authors. “As a result, we may be better able to heal from this crisis and better prepared to respond to potential future crises.”

A full interview with Dr. Juan Antonio Lossio-Ventura discussing this research can be found here: Keeping a positive mindset during the Covid-19 crisis

What do you think?

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