Alumnus Fred Atilla wins Unilever Research Prize 2022

Cognitive psychologist and alumnus Fred Atilla of Erasmus University Rotterdam has won the Unilever Research Prize 2022 for his research on how attention and emotions towards COVID-19 evolved among Twitter users during the first months of the pandemic and identified factors explaining these changes. The study showed that the physical distance to a COVID-19 hotspot influences public attention and sentiment among Twitter users.

Fred Atilla analyzed 300,000 COVID-19-related posts that appeared on Twitter between January and April 2020. His research examined the emotions of Twitter users. Since geographical location information is often linked to Twitter data, he could also calculate the distance from the message’s country of origin to the nearest COVID-infected region.

Thus, he examined how Twitter users’ physical distance from COVID-19 affected their attention and emotions. It was found that as the disease got closer, more tweets were posted, and the average sentiment in the tweets became more negative.

Physical proximity affects the sense of threat

The results indicate that physical proximity to a threat affects how much people pay attention to it and how they react emotionally. This insight is valuable information for policymakers. It allows them to anticipate public reaction during the course of a crisis. It also gives them a starting point to raise public awareness of potential hazards. For example, local impacts of climate change, such as floods, can be used to raise public awareness of global problems.

From the nomination report: The research deals with a topical issue, and Atilla has taken a sophisticated methodological approach to the research question. He has used complex techniques such as text mining. He has conducted the research largely independently. The thesis is beautifully written at a level approaching that of an academic publication.

Fred Atilla graduated Summa Cum Laude from the master’s programme Brain & Cognitio n’in the Department of Psychology, Education and Child Studies. For his thesis Impact of Spatial Distance on Public Attention and Sentiment during the Spread of COVID-19 he received a 9.5. Professor Rolf Zwaan and dr. Steven Verheyen supervised him. Fred is currently a lecturer in Machine Learning at Tilburg University.

The poster with results of the research is available for download.

Marjolein Kooistra, communications ESSB,