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Why You Need to Stay Connected While Social Distancing

When people stay connected, they function as one system.

Most people have a strong drive to stay connected to other people. This fact is closely related to what psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the need to belong.” Baumeister’s work shows how most people actively seek out opportunities to belong to a group.

But that is difficult to do when we need to be “socially distancing” ourselves from other people in order to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, some people are suggesting that we refer to our response to the coronavirus as “physical distancing” instead of social distancing. The idea is that you can be physically distant from someone while remaining socially close.

Ironically, though, there is a fair bit of cognitive science research suggesting that our minds naturally tend to conflate physical distance with social distance. According to conceptual metaphor theory, the way we use our everyday metaphors when we talk indicates that we tend to treat intimacy as closeness (Gibbs, 2011; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Therefore, even calling it merely “physical distancing” can still unintentionally evoke a sense of social distance along with it.

Rather than concentrating on how we refer to the necessary distancing that we are all engaging in, perhaps we should instead concentrate on how we can alleviate the detrimental effects it will have. The solution is actually simple; you just have to turn it into a habit. As novelist E.M. Forster put it, “Only connect.”

The many varied connections that arise between people (or any set of subsystems) are often more interesting and important than the people (or subsystems) themselves. As Martin Buber wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

While sheltering in place and social distancing during these next several months, all you need to do is reach out technologically to your family and friends a little more frequently than you used to. Call, text, and email them regularly. Play party games or have drinks together over video chat. (The Japanese are calling that “On-Nomi.”) You need to keep your social skills in good shape. You need to keep your ability to trust in good working order. You need to stay connected. Not just for you, but for other people too.

Being connected is something that happens everywhere, not just in human relationships. Two pendulum clocks will fall into synchrony even when they aren’t touching each other, as long as they are resting on the same wooden beam. Two animals will transmit yawn contagion to one another, as long as they see each other as part of the same tribe. And two humans will exhibit some correlation in the sway of their postures, as long as they are talking to each other. When these two subsystems become coordinated, they function a bit like one system. They become something more than just a pair of interacting animals; they become a dyad.

For living organisms, like you and me, this coordination and joint systemhood is essential for physical and mental health. In your brain, there are many tightly-knit networks of neurons that stay healthy and productive only when they are sending electrochemical signals back-and-forth to each other in a relatively steady fashion. Not enough signal flow, and the cells will atrophy and die. Too much signal overflow, and you get a “neural avalanche,” or an epileptic seizure. In your arms and legs, a tightly-knit network of muscles and tendons stays healthy and productive only when they pull back-and-forth on one another in a relatively steady fashion. Too much imbalance in that pulling, and you sprain something.

Just as with the biological systems of the body, the biological system of a tightly-knit human community stays healthy and productive only when people are interacting with each other in a relatively steady fashion. None of us likes it when we sprain something in our social relationships. Too much isolation, and the thin veneer of trust and shared purpose can begin to fall apart.

You may not quite realize how many little interactions you used to have with other people as you went about your daily routine at work or at school. Even just taking one second to hold a door open for someone who happens to be walking behind you is an interaction that provides scaffolding for our mutual social trust.

Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of “scaffolding” a century ago, primarily in the context of education. There are certain things that a child cannot learn on their own, and that learning needs to be scaffolded by a teacher or parent. But the concept can be generalized to everyday interactions between people as well. When a person you don’t know is walking through a door ahead of you and they take a second to hold the door open for you, that serves as a lesson for how to engage in our social contract of mutual trust and shared purpose.

These tiny little interactions in everyday physical closeness and social closeness serve as a kind of social scaffolding to keep us all well practiced at treating each other as part of our in-group – even when we look different from each other. This kind of social scaffolding is fundamental to early brain development (Tottenham, 2015), to expert-novice interactions (Mascolo, 2005), and even to the healthcare industry (Mamykina et al., 2008).

In my new book, Who You Are: The Science of Connectedness, I encourage you to take advantage of as wide a social scaffolding as you can get your hands on, and thus make all of humanity your in-group. Now that all of humanity clearly has a vicious common enemy, the coronavirus, it is especially important to treat all humans as your in-group. Not just your family. Not just your friends. Not just your country. But all of humanity. That may be the only way we can beat this pandemic. Now, if you want to place harmful viruses in your out-group, then, by all means, be my guest. After all, when you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, you’re murdering millions of virus cells; that pretty much makes your position clear.

When that mutual trust and shared purpose break down, bad things happen in society. We’ll tackle that in my next post.

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