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The Psychology of Neighbors

Why neighbors occupy a uniquely crucial role in our lives.

M. Terry Bowman, an occupational therapy manager had been living alone in Tacoma, Washington when she learned the value of knowing her neighbors after coming down with a suspected case of the coronavirus. She had been fighting the illness for a week; just getting out of bed to attempt to make a meal wiped her out.

But at happy hour events sponsored by her apartment building, she had exchanged contact information with a few neighbors over drinks and conversation. “Funny enough, if we hadn’t had the pandemic, I’m not sure I would have actually reached out to them beyond the happy hours. But I truly needed help, and that pushed me.” She texted some of them, and three people responded quickly to ask what she needed. She found food, juice, and Tylenol dropped off at her door soon after.

Paula Cruickshank, a writer living in Arlington, Virginia, and recent author of the memoir Beyond the Box, has seen the pandemic magnify the mutual support within her already friendly neighborhood of small, historic single-family homes, where neighbors literally bake cookies for each other. Cruickshank, who is in her 60s, has recently found new ways to bond with her neighbors, who are mostly families with young children. One neighbor sat on Cruickshank’s doorstep so they could make noise for health care workers and first responders at a designated time. “She cheered loudly while I banged a pot with a wooden spoon, and best of all, her young son played the accordion.”

Even before the pandemic, neighbor relationships were unlike any others in our social lives. We live in close proximity with people we often know little about and overhear some of the most private aspects of each other’s days. We’re familiar strangers. And these relationships can be some of the most important ones we have.

Neighbors occupy an intriguing space in our social fabric, one that, even if limited or borne of convenience, can still be crucial to our well-being. An April 2014 study by Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin noted that students experienced greater happiness and feelings of belonging on days where they interacted with a higher number of classmates, even if those interactions were minimal or casual. The simple reassurance of greeting others and being surrounded by other people enhances one’s mood, as anyone who gets their daily cup of coffee from the corner café barista can attest.

In turn, loneliness and a lack of connection adversely affect individuals, as seen in multiple studies of health outcomes in older people, who are particularly vulnerable to isolation. One study by Emily Greenfield and Laurent Reyes in the Journal of Gerontology from August 2014 examined 1,071 adults aged 40 to 70 and found that low levels of contact with neighbors were associated with declining levels of psychological well-being.

Many people, particularly introverts, note that it is increasingly difficult to make new friends after the more structured years of schooling and the tricky realm of co-workers. People have turned to social media, religious groups, volunteer organizations, groups related to hobbies, or children to connect better with new people, although the depth and meaning of those relationships can vary widely. Neighbors can offer a ready option, but people aren’t always comfortable befriending them, perhaps as part of a wider issue with social connection in this country.

Part of the underlying sense of disconnection may lie in our workaholic society, a sense of constant pressure and lack of time, and an ongoing American ethos of individualism and self-reliance. In more recent decades, even since the now disputed Kitty Genovese effect (where neighbors allegedly ignored the cries of Genovese, who was ultimately murdered), and now with the advent of the internet and social media, people have fretted about the breakdown of “neighborhoods” and the lack of a sense of civility amongst them. Part of this anxiety connects to larger societal ills; In 1987, William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, researched in his book The Truly Disadvantaged the “neighborhood effect,” where poverty and loss of jobs within a community affects multiple indices of well-being, such as public health (including rates of depression and medical illnesses), interpersonal trust, and more.

Mistrust can be just as contagious as trust; one study by Shou-An Chang and Arielle Baskin-Sommers, published in Frontiers in Psychology in March 2020, noted that in stressed or disadvantaged communities, residents interpreted basic facial cues differently in terms of threat and perceptions of trustworthiness relative to those who lived in less distressed neighborhoods. Even in affluent areas, territorialism can intrude on cooperation, as drastically seen when Senator Rand Paul’s neighbor ended up violently assaulting him over escalating boundary disputes between their large properties.

This sense of self-reliance and mistrust may lead in turn to anxieties about feeling intrusive or in the way when you do need to reach out to people, even if, in reality, people may be surprisingly open when contacted. There are limits to self-reliance; evolutionary survival did not only promote the strongest and fittest but the skills of mutual cooperation with different people, as the strength of many still often outweighs the few. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by David Rand, Samuel Arbesman, and Nicholas Christakis from October 2011 used a mathematical dynamic model from economic game theory to demonstrate that larger-scale cooperation benefits individual subjects. In turn, cooperation also tends to decay over time if the network becomes static.

In terms of neighbors, this model confirms the benefits of expanding one’s social network to include the enhanced social variety of neighbors for improved quality of life. The resilience of larger, evolving social networks leads to mutual beneficence and protection on this level of basic survival; food and assets and knowledge can be pooled and shared to everyone’s improvement. Even communities that appear superficially tense, like the famous gruffness of New Yorkers, can become stronger in the face of common adversity, as they did immediately after 9/11 and during the painful COVID-19 crisis today.

As Terry notes, “If you make yourself vulnerable and take a chance with people around you, you might be pleasantly surprised.” Your family or friends may be dear to your heart, but neighbors are next door. They can literally save your life.