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The Hard Work of Social Distancing

How do we override our social needs to accomplish social distancing?

People have a fundamental need for human connection. This idea is strongly rooted in our evolutionary past: Social living enhances the likelihood for survival from infancy through old age, making social living a default orientation. Because being in close proximity to others is an evolved adaptation, it not only drives individual behavior, but it also underlies the general structure of our society: Our society is built around social gatherings, cooperative engagement, and groups. To socialize is to be human.

What do we do when we're asked not to socialize? We keep socializing.

Socializing is such a basic, primary behavior, it's hard to stop. We're seeing this unfold: Under strong recommendations to avoid getting together with other people and to engage in social distancing, people struggle to resist getting together. Across the country, people are lining up to enter bars and clubs, going to beaches, restaurants, and mingling in the streets. Maybe people do not recognize their own personal role in slowing this pandemic (even if they feel healthy), but there's something else going on here: Not socializing goes against the fabric of community living and against a fundamental drive that is within all of us. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is telling us to "hunker down" and that overreacting is probably better defined as reacting. Yet to make this work, we need to overcome a primary drive. We need to ignore our normal pervasive need to be among other people.

Why is it so hard to social distance?

Individuals differ in how intensely they feel compelled to affiliate with others. Scholars have considered affiliative needs from a homeostasis perspective: We balance our individual needs to be with others against our need for personal time, seeking what might be ideal for us (Hall, 2017). Too much social activity, we separate ourselves; too little, we feel lonely and disconnected and try to intensify our feelings of connection. But this presumes the freedom to move toward or away from people as desired; the challenge facing us currently is that we are asked to avoid social gatherings, even if we want them.

Being with others is our natural inclination, making social distancing hard for us to do. It's particularly challenging when it's an abrupt, unexpected, and dramatic shift from lots of face-to-face time to very little. Leaving college in the middle of the semester, working remotely when you're used to lots of in-person conversations, or losing work hours that would have put you in the company of other people. This is a dramatic shift to the standard level of social interaction that we're used to and have come to expect.

Beyond school and work, the general practice of spending time with family and friends needs to be modified to slow the spread of COVD-19. There's resistance here, too, because it goes against our natural need to affiliate with people we care about. It's disappointing to postpone a retirement party, forgo happy hour, or reschedule a wedding; but to cease daily visits to a spouse of 50 years in their residential care facility, or to not be allowed to see a loved one in the hospital is entirely different. These are real hardships. Staying away from those with whom we have strong attachments runs counter to a deep psychological drive.

Stressful times heighten our need for connection.

Indeed, it's during stressful times in particular when we want to be in the company of others. It makes us feel better, an emotional comfort reflected in a physiological calming. Experimental evidence shows that when people are experiencing a threatening situation, spending time with people who feel the same emotional stress lowers cortisol levels and reduces stress (Towsend, Kim, & Mesquita, 2014). No wonder we're having a hard time staying in and away from people.

How can we be better at social distancing?

First, we need to acknowledge that our drive to be with other people is an essential part of being human. It's ingrained into who we are, and into how our culture operates. Knowing that being with others is our default, we must shift our focus so that we can fulfill our belonging needs without exposing ourselves or passing along the virus.

We need to override our normal responses to feeling bored, alone, or longing for human interaction and find other ways to satisfy these social needs. Maybe you've just met a potential romantic partner and want to keep seeing them, or you're desperate to be with friends and fearing you're missing out, or you've been with your kids and want a break, all of our normal drives are to make plans with other people. This isn't the time. But social distancing is not social disconnection. Here are some ideas.

  1. Video chat with friends you've never video-chatted with before. Your Friday night pizza/movie gang, your coffee shop crew, your regular group of friends—surprise them with an invite to keep up the fun, but virtually. Engaging in meaningful conversations, sharing authentic feelings and emotions, can help promote feelings of closeness and connection even if it's not in person.
  2. Schedule a virtual happy hour. These are not perfect substitutes for in-person connection, but they can be fun. Tell your attendees to bring their drink and their good moods.
  3. Keep going with game night. In the game of Battleship, you have to individually record your own and your opponents moves... so why not do that in other games, played with an opponent virtually? Chess, Monopoly, even card games with some creativity can be played through video chat.
  4. Immerse yourself in other worlds. Research on parasocial relationships suggests that immersing yourself in fictional worlds, like a good book, movie, or TV show, can help meet belonging needs. Your "friends" Rachel, Ross and the gang, are ready to spend some time with you. An absorbing Netflix binge can help satisfy some of our basic needs for connection. Solitude can be temporarily alleviated through our engagement in fictional worlds.
  5. Turn up the music and sing along. Scholars have shown that indulging in music can provide a sense of belonging (Schäfer & Eerola, 2018). The idea is that listening to favorite music can evoke memories and feelings of connection such that music becomes a social surrogate, an alternative way to feel connected.
  6. Attend a virtual event. Experience a live concert or Shakespeare performance, take a museum tour, go to the zoo, all from your couch and with thousands of other people. Doing new activities is invigorating and can help you feel connected to others in the same boat.

It's unnatural for humans to stay away from each other, but knowing our social instinct can help us to manage it. We're compelled to be with each other, but we can be with each other through virtual means for now, so that this strange new normal can be in our past. COVID-19 is spreading fast and as a new virus, we have no established immunity; the only way to slow the spread is by limiting our interactions with others.


Hall, J. A. (2017). The regulation of social interaction in everyday life: A replication and extension of O’Connor and Rosenblood (1996). Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34(5), 699-716.

Schäfer, K., & Eerola, T. (2018). How listening to music and engagement with other media provide a sense of belonging: an exploratory study of social surrogacy. Psychology of Music.

Townsend, S. S., Kim, H. S., & Mesquita, B. (2014). Are you feeling what I’m feeling? Emotional similarity buffers stress. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(5), 526-533.

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