How Social Are Your Relationships?

Being Human 101: COVID-19 is showing that we are more connected than we realize.

Posted Sep 18, 2020

It may sound odd to say anything good about COVID-19. Without wanting to come across as a Pollyanna, there are two things about what's been happening I am hoping we will all remember once this deadly pandemic is over. 

As my son Gabriel and I have said in some detail in our book on understanding the human mind, there is definitely something called human nature. The two of us like to talk about what makes us who we are as The Great Human High-Five Advantage.

Previously in this series for Psychology TodayI have only briefly discussed these five advantages. It is the third one I want to talk about now. This is the one we have labeled as social networks.

Of all that could be said about social networks, there are two things I want to emphasize here. First, we need them, and I don't just mean Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram. Second, our social networks are not always social. 

I think SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 may be helping us see perhaps more clearly than before the pandemic both why we need our social networks and why they are so much more than simply social.

1. What social distancing is showing us

As I have said previously in this series called Being Human 101, our ability to connect with others of our kind unquestionably extends the richness and diversity of our social, emotional, and practical resources far beyond what any of us could manage all on our own. We are a social species that flourishes best when as individuals we are linked far and wide with others in productive and enduring social networks. 

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During the pandemic, however, the phrase "social distancing" has become a battle cry against the disease. We are being told to disconnect from one another, not connect. We shouldn't even shake hands, much less hug and kiss. All of these critical admonitions are decidedly counter to human nature. 

As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social distancing means "keeping a safe space between yourself and other people who are not from your household." How? By staying "at least 6 feet—about two arms’ length—from other people who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces."

Is it any wonder, therefore, that practicing social distancing during the pandemic—along with wearing a face mask to protect yourself and others—has acquired strong emotional and even political overtones that are certainly never intended, and which are dividing us all into "maskers" and "anti-maskers" when the last thing we need is to be at war with one another. 

The claim often heard in defense of not wearing a mask is that each of us has a constitutional right to do whatever we feel is OK without anyone else telling us what to do. This isn't a political post, and I won't be telling you what I think about such an argument. I am sure you can guess.

The point I do want to make is this one. The fact that we don't like social distancing doesn't just show that we are pigheaded and selfish. This gut reaction also shows that most of us like and, yes, need social contact and social support.

However, the fact that you can get really sick and even die if you get near someone who isn't even displaying any obvious COVID-19 symptoms also proves the second point I want to make.

2. Our social networks are not always social

According to popular wisdom nowadays the human brain is like a computer, some would say a supercomputer. Perhaps this is true, but if so, then our brains are basically just fairly straightforward pattern recognition devices created by evolution (or God) to seek out the regularities in the world we need to navigate successfully to survive. 

From this perspective, I have found it useful to classify the patterns—the relationships—that our brains are most likely to see and remember in three ways:

Categorical relationships: Many of the relationships defining who we are and what we do in life are arbitrary. A simple example: who becomes identified as “the boss” gets to tell those labeled as “employees” what to do and when. Because categorization of this sort can be far from obvious to the uninformed, such arbitrary relationships can be at one and the same time both consequential and extremely difficult to isolate and study. Nor do they occur solely in the domain of human relationships, as witnessed, for instance, by the dominance relationships found within primate troops.   

Structural relationships: Some of the relationships influencing what we are able to do in life are situational. Their patterning may not be static and unchanging over time and space, but they can make a telling difference, nonetheless. Example: the likelihood that you will arrive promptly at your office may depend on the time of day (is it still the rush hour?), and how much traffic there is ahead of you on the streets you need to take to get there.

Functional relationships: Some relationships are instrumental not only in the sense of who gets to tell whom what to do, or how you can do it, but also how successfully what needs to be done gets done. Example: perhaps my favorite example is that seemingly all-purpose tool called a screwdriver which can be used in many useful ways that have nothing to do with turning a threaded metal cylinder up or down into, say, a piece of wood.

What's the conclusion here? All three of these kinds of relationships between ourselves and the world around us come into play for us as social animals trying to get by, survive, and hopefully enjoy life. Our relationships don't have to social to be important. Examples: your local supermarket staff, your town's waste management team, and the United States Postal Service.

Next up – Being Human 101: Sherlock Holmes and the Logic of Perception