What color is your pandemic?

One of the most interesting studies I’ve done during the help-people-quit-tobacco part of my career was a study of the metaphors people use when they think about quitting. Metaphors are so fundamental to how we understand things – if you’re still thinking of them as an optional and poetic form of self-expression, let me recommend Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They’re everywhere.

In our study, we started with more than 2100 posts that were made in a social support forum for people trying to quit their use of moist snuff (like Copenhagen and Skoal) or chewing tobacco. I marked every metaphor I saw, and my colleague Shari Reyna did the same. (Shari’s so cool – she’s also an anthropologist and dairy-goat-farmer who loves socially creative science fiction by writers like Ursula LeGuin and Sheri Tepper.) Then we compared our notes.

We found that people had five ways of thinking about quitting tobacco: as a journey, a project, a battle, an escape from captivity, and ending a dysfunctional relationship. Why was this useful? When you know what metaphors people are using, you can think through the implications that follow from that way of thinking about things. If quitting is a battle, then you’re always on your guard against cravings, which makes sense for a while, but after a few years this attitude would be stressful. If it’s a journey, what happens after you arrive? Moving to a new community where you learn how to do some things differently could make more sense. And then if you’re designing programs to help people who want to change that part of their life, you have a better idea of what to take into account.

This week, I came across a new study using metaphors, this time about the COVID-19 pandemic. In the study, led by B. Liahnna Stanley, a grad student at Arizona State, they gathered their data in a much more efficient way: They just asked people directly. They interviewed 44 people and asked them, “If COVID-19 had a color, what color would it be and why?” and “If COVID-19 were an animal, what animal would it be and why?”

So what color is the pandemic? Their participants’ answers were fascinating. Along with the colors I’d expect, like black for the scariness and red for the panic and stress, they also suggested an ugly green to represent the virus itself, along with related ideas like infection and rot, and neon orange, because it’s “hard to look away, obnoxious, annoying, permanent, incessant, and bothersome.”

The animal metaphors were interesting too. Some suggested reptiles, like snakes and lizards, because the virus is unpredictable, dangerous, and elusive. Others thought of insects like wasps, because they’re pesky and hard to kill, or small mammals like rodents and cats, because they’re sneaky and unpredictable. Some said big predators like tigers or dragons, because they’re scary and territorial, creating chaos, while yet others were reminded of scavengers like hyenas or vultures, because they’re disgusting and prey on the weak.

Overall, their mental models described the pandemic in terms of uncertainty, danger, grotesqueness, and misery, with associated emotions of grief, disgust, anger, and fear. Some, though, saw the pandemic as an opportunity for creating community and giving them personal benefits, like more free time.

What’s the point? Understanding how people think about crises like the COVID-19 pandemic is essential for leaders, health care workers, and anyone involved in crafting messages to encourage healthy behavior. This study showed that responses to the pandemic are emotionally complex – and that’s with only 44 people, most of them living in the same part of the country (more than half were in Arizona and California). It would be so interesting if we could compare them with, say, people living in western Europe or China.

Even aside from the potential usefulness of the findings, it’s really valuable to find ways that help people express their feelings. With the pandemic, we’re all in it together; there aren’t a lot of opportunities to talk about our feelings because everyone is already so tired of it. If you’re up for it, though, you might offer someone in your life the opportunity to answer these study questions. (Especially if you’re a parent or a teacher.) So what do you think – what color or animal would COVID-19 be?

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to What color is your pandemic?

  1. Graeme Adamson says:

    For colour, I’d go red, probably because the diagrams of the virus on news sites seem to mostly be red.

    Animal…snake? Potentially lethal, and unexpected.

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