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What Social Situations Take Up the Most "Social Bandwidth"?

New research examines what makes an interaction energy-draining.

Photo by Nikola, courtesy Pexels
Photo by Nikola, courtesy Pexels

Social interactions are a major part of our lives. They can be fulfilling and enjoyable, they can make us miserable, or anything in between. But these social interactions can also sap our energy. While this lack of energy could just be a byproduct of our mood or recent experiences, like a hard day at work, it's quite likely that some situations simply require more energy than others. In a new paper recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Jeffrey Hall and colleagues conducted two studies to examine the factors that affect how much "social bandwidth" an interaction requires.

What They Did

In the first study, the researchers simply asked participants to describe the highest energy-expending social interaction they'd had in the past two months. The researchers coded survey responses from over 300 participants to find out what these high-energy expenditure interactions had in common. Participants also rated how much they experienced various emotions during the interaction, how connected (e.g., "I felt accepted by others") and how disconnected they felt from others (e.g., "I felt distant from others") during the interaction, and how much energy they had expended.

The second study asked participants about their daily interactions over a ten-day period. Throughout the study period, participants were randomly notified seven times each day by an app. Each time they were notified, participants completed a brief survey about what they were doing at that moment. If the participants were involved in a social interaction, they answered several questions about that interaction, including what the content of the conversation was and how much energy they were expending.

What They Found: What Makes an Interaction Energy-Draining?

In the first study, the most common factors the researchers noted in people’s most energy-draining interactions were:

  • The conversation was difficult or intense
  • The specific person they were interacting with required more energy from them
  • The conversation was long
  • They were trying to make a good impression
  • The interaction involved meeting a lot of new people or interacting with a lot of people with whom they were not familiar.

In the second study, which examined daily interactions, the researchers found that certain types of conversations were more likely to be rated as energy-draining, conversations that:

  • Involved a large number of people
  • Involved unfamiliar people
  • Discussed work or school
  • Were meaningful
  • Involved complaining
  • Involved conflict

Many of these features highlight the link between energy expenditure and the time commitment and intensity of the interaction. Emotional intensity is draining. But it is also notable that the emotional experiences people had during these interactions ranged widely. Energy-expending interactions could be either positive or negative, exciting or boring. It might take a lot of energy to work through a conflict with a friend. But it also might take a lot of energy to make a good impression on a date with someone you really like. It requires energy to participate in an exciting conversation, but it's also draining to try to maintain interest and attention when talking to someone who is really boring. Similarly, interactions in which we feel really connected to others can sap our energy, as can interactions in which we feel disconnected and lonely. Both positive and negative interactions can drain our energy.

Recovery from energy-draining conversations depends on how positive those interactions are. Participants reported being less fatigued after the interaction if they felt connected to others during the interaction or were interested in it. Interactions that were especially long, or occurred in a loud intense environment, tended to make people feel particularly fatigued. People were also more likely to seek out alone time rather than further company after these energy-intensive experiences, whether they were positive or negative.

In Sum

Energy-draining interactions come in a variety of forms. Certain types of conversations, including meaningful conversations or conversations that involve conflicts or complaining, are especially likely to be seen as energy-intensive. This highlights how both interactions where we feel very connected to others and interactions where we feel distant from others can sap our energy. We're also more likely to feel drained by interactions where we have to manage the impressions we make on others, such as when we're interacting with unfamiliar people or large groups. While both positive and negative interactions take up a lot of bandwidth, our energy levels are quicker to bounce back when that interaction is a positive one.

More from Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
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