4 Psychological Reasons Why Zoom Is Not Reality

What do we lose beyond just nonverbal cues?

Posted Jun 11, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social isolation/lockdown has caused us to rely more and more on online, virtual communication (Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, Discord, Google Hangouts, and others). This has led to an almost instantaneous transformation in how we are meeting others at work, in schools, and when we want to make personal connections with family and friends. Even musical and theatre performances and sporting events are being held online because the fear of infection has removed the audiences.

There has been quite a bit written on how there is a loss of nonverbal/body language cues in videoconferencing, and those can be substantial. However, there is even more lost in terms of the psychological factors that make live interactions so rich. Here are four of the most important.

1. We Lose Perspective. In a live interaction, whether it be in a home, a classroom, or a concert hall, we are able to see the entire thing. We can focus on the participants, or on the background, or on other audience members. We can take in the entire “performance,” not just what the camera(s) shows us. Videoconferencing can provide a close-up and detailed look at the speaker(s), but we can’t take in the whole setting at once.

2. Loss of Control. In videoconferencing, we have limited control of the camera. In a face-to-face event, we control what we look at. Autonomy and a sense of control over our environment are important psychological principles that make us feel more engaged and satisfied with the interaction.

3. Missing the Milieu. This is the entire experience of the setting—the people, the attitudes and emotions expressed (much of this is communicated nonverbally), the physical objects in the environment. Much of this is missing in a videoconference. We see and experience only what the camera allows us to see (Are you wearing pants, or not?).

4. The “Event.” Whether it be a live visit to friends or family, a play, a concert, or athletic contest/game, it is an event that we go to that is an experience in and of itself. A videoconference simply cannot capture all of the elements that are going on around us at an event—the trip there, the entrance and exit, as the saying goes from theatrical plays “the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd.” Movie theatres feature “surround sound” in an effort to make you feel like you are actually in the movie — an attempt to compensate for the live event. In addition, we can experience the emotional contagion associated with being in the midst of the crowd, feeling and sensing their reactions. All of this is missing from the videoconference.

So, if you find that your Zoom conference or Skype session is less satisfying than the real thing, there are psychological reasons for it.