The COVID-19 pandemic continues across the globe and is still particularly ravaging the United States. Currently, science and medicine are unequivocally clear on how to reduce the risk of transmission – social distancing. Yet this behavior comes with a real cost of reduced social connections and research has shown that losing social connections can be dangerous to both physical and psychological well-being. There is a difficult tradeoff between social distancing to protect ourselves and others from the threat of COVID-19 transmission and the costs of social isolation. Even more problematic, the consequences of social isolation can both directly and indirectly make social distancing even harder to maintain; we need to find ways to cope with the isolation, or the isolation itself will make us unwilling and unable to maintain social distancing.
Humans have a fundamental need to belong
It is perhaps not surprising to learn that humans have a fundamental need to belong. From early in our evolution, humans were more likely to survive and reproduce when we lived in groups. Group living afforded humans better access to food and other resources and yielded significant benefits for access to mating partners. Beyond the obvious advantage, from a biological perspective, we derive a sense of certainty from our connections with others; the world is often a chaotic and ambiguous place and we look to the groups to which we belong to derive a sense of certainty. We receive both care and support from our social connections. Offering care and support to others in turn helps us feel a sense of meaning and of responsibility. People with strong social relationships tend to experience greater overall well-being , cope with stress better, and are less likely to engage in criminal or anti-social behavior.
The consequences of social exclusion
Social isolation and exclusion is associated with lower self-esteem, greater anxiety, and elevated violence along with decrements in immune functioning. When people’s sense of belonging is threatened, a host of changes occur in the way people think about and perceive the world, how they feel, and how they behave. Often these changes are geared towards fixing the current situation. For example, some of these changes make it easier for people to mend their situations (e.g., people become really good at reading facial expressions of emotions, including being able to discern between real and fake smiles), they pay more attention to individual features of a person rather than relying on stereotypes to evaluate potential new partners, and they are highly motivated to find new partners.
In contrast to these adaptive responses, people also tend to become more aggressive, have difficulty with complex problem-solving tasks, and show decreased ability to self-regulate or control their impulses. This can result in excluded people engaging in often anti-social behaviors geared more towards establishing control or distancing themselves from others rather than mending broken bonds or finding new people with whom to affiliate.
The vicious cycle of belonging threats and social distancing
Social distancing is clearly and undeniably the best way to avoid getting and transmitting COVID-19, but it comes at a genuine cost of social connections. We become less connected to our coworkers when we work from home. We miss friends and family by avoiding parties and skipping holiday gatherings. Young adults transitioning to college experience even more uncertainty about their sense of belonging in a new environment, as addressed in this article by Maithreyi Gopalan. Even eating inside restaurants means fewer social connections with others. How many children have missed birthday parties as a result of the need to socially distance? Halloween 2020 may occur without trick or treating and without parties. These are only some of the many ways in which our social connection – our sense of belonging – is threatened by the necessity of social distancing.
Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle between what we have to do to protect ourselves and others and the negative consequences of social disconnection which then makes it harder for us to socially distance. The very consequence of social disconnection is that we are less able to sustain our efforts to socially distance. This may explain, in part, why people are starting to ignore social distancing requirements.
And as our ability to self-regulate decreases, and we stop being as diligent with social distancing, this in turn can lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases, thus ending the vicious cycle with a greater need to socially distance.
How can we stop the cycle?
Until a vaccine becomes readily available, social distancing is the best defense we have against COVID-19, yet the threat to our sense of belonging and connection remains omnipresent. Thus, we have to find workable ways to cope with that threatened sense of belonging, and there are indeed numerous ways to do so.
As many have noted, what prevents the spread of COVID-19 is being physically separated from others, but this doesn’t necessarily require that people be socially distant. Finding ways to connect with others through video chats or phone calls, by group texts, and by participating in online games with friends and family are all ways of feeling more socially connected in a world where we can’t do those things in person safely. Streaming services have developed online platforms allowing people to watch movies and TV together even through distance. All of these things which people have gravitated to are supported by the existing research on belonging threats. We know, for example, that reminders of social connection mitigate the acute negative impact that social exclusion has on people. We also know that comfort food really does help people feel more belonging and that people can fulfill their need to belong by identifying with TV characters. At their core, all the behaviors we’ve found ourselves engaging in to cope with the loneliness that comes from our current state stems from making salient that we are not in fact alone.
It is incredibly important we find ways to help ourselves and our loves ones cope with the social isolation and feeling of disconnection we are all experiencing as we survive this pandemic. Failure to do so will only result in lives lost or ruined and it taking longer to mitigate the very problem we face.