Nicholas Epley: Policies should prioritize human well-being

A COVID-19 Q&A with the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science

Jun 02, 2020

This transcript is taken from an interview conducted April 3, 2020.

How can people maintain social connections while social distancing?

We’re all experiencing the enormity of the current situation in different ways. There are physical health concerns and economic health concerns, but there are also social health concerns—and in fact, I would say those are likely to be affecting us more broadly than almost anything else. 

Nearly everyone is in some social-isolation or social-distancing mode right now, and it’s important to understand what that is. It’s not actually social distancing that we’re being asked to do. We’re being asked to do physical distancing. Nevertheless, that physical distance can keep us from others, and that’s the main concern that psychologists have in this. My message is that you have more power to do good than you think.

One of the real pains of this pandemic is a feeling of helplessness that affects us all. But at least on the social front, you have a lot of power to reach out and do good for others, just by trying to connect with them. In research my coauthors and I have done, we find time and time and time again that people underestimate how positively others respond when they reach out, and this includes not just friends and family. It’s especially true of people that you’re a little more disconnected from: old acquaintances, people you haven’t talked to in a while, neighbors, and people you might walk by—six or more feet away from—on the road. 

People tend to enjoy conversations with others more than they predict, mostly because they underestimate how interested others are in engaging with them. We underestimate how positively others will respond to our efforts to reach out, how positive our expressions of gratitude will feel, how positively others will respond to compliments, and how positively other people will respond when we express support to them. 

We need social connection more now than arguably at any other time. You can help with that. You can reach out and connect to others, and others are going to be more receptive than you might guess. There's real power in knowing that.

What are the most effective ways to stay in touch?

When we try to connect with other people, it does seem to matter how we go about doing this. Modern technology gives us lots of options for how we can have a conversation with someone and actually connect with that person. We can sit down and type an email, or pick up the phone and call. We can do what I’m doing right now, which is to engage in video chat. What we find in our research is that the cue that seems most important for creating a sense of connection is actually the presence of voice. That’s where we see the greatest sense of connection or understanding of another person. The big difference is between more intimate mediums that include voice (such as the phone, or video chat) and mediums that do not contain human voice (text-based mediums such as texts and emails).

The voice seems especially powerful because it contains paralinguistic cues that convey a presence of mind. You can hear me thinking in the way I speak to you. You can get a sense of the emotion that I’m feeling. You can get the content of my language as well, which connects you most closely to my mind at almost any given time—and it’s connecting through voice that seems most critical for creating a sense of connection with another person. 

I don’t think that connecting over a video, and being able to see somebody, is going to have a negative effect. My guess is it has some positive effects, that it communicates other kinds of cues to folks who aren’t able to talk with you. Our daughter, for instance, is not speaking yet, but she can smile to no end, and my parents love to see her smile over video chat. That doesn’t come through on the phone. But if you’re able to talk with others, the voice really seems to have it in terms of a sense of connection. 

Why mental well-being should be part of the COVID-19 policy response

The power of social connection in the age of social distancing

What will be the long-term psychological impact of COVID-19?

One thing this pandemic has brought to the fore is the importance of human health in all aspects of society, including the economic aspects. You cannot have a functioning economy if people are not healthy enough to go out and work, and one of the things that we know about social connection is that it’s extremely important for human health. In fact, epidemiologists find that loneliness,or a sense of disconnection from other people, creates a psychological stressor that compromises your immune system. It can make you more susceptible to all sorts of other illnesses and diseases, from the common cold to the flu. It increases cardiovascular disease and decreases cardiovascular health. When epidemiologists crunch the numbers, they find that loneliness,or social isolation, and the decrease in well-being that comes from it, is as big a risk factor for morbidity and mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That’s a stunning response. 

When people feel disconnected from others, they are not well, physically speaking, and that is going to have meaningful downstream consequences on how people go out and work and how they function in the economy. Arguments about the importance of economics in society are obviously critical, but there are many things that feed into those economic consequences—including lots of social forces, the kinds of social forces that we’re all having disrupted right now. 

I would like to see human well-being prioritized as an important policy matter at the federal and state levels. When people are feeling well—they’re happy, they’re feeling a sense of connection to others—they’re more likely to engage positively with other people, and that’s going to have meaningful downstream consequences on how that society functions. That’s a major policy issue.     

How might our social relationships change as a result of COVID-19?

I have both an optimistic and a pessimistic side when thinking about the long-term outcomes of this crisis. The pessimist in me is worried that the concern about catching a virus is going to push people to be even more disconnected from others than they might already be in their daily lives. We find in our research that people are happier and enjoy experiences more when they’re reaching out and connecting with others—and that’s especially true, or at least surprisingly true, when people are connecting with strangers and expanding their social networks. The pessimist in me is worried that fears of viral contagion are going to lead to efforts to maintain social distance from others down the road. 

The optimist in me hopes that this pandemic has caused us to realize two things. One is about the real power and importance of being able to connect with other people for our well-being. Losing contact with friends and family is painful and unpleasant. The second is about how to maintain some of those connections effectively, even at a distance. 

We have a surprising amount of power to brighten someone’s day by reaching out and connecting to others in positive ways.

Before the pandemic broke out, most of us psychologists had a pretty negative view of technology, recognizing that it mostly enabled us to stay disconnected from other people in the moment. We’d carry phones around that kept us from contacting folks who were nearby. Now, though, we’re having virtual cocktail parties. I talked to a friend on the phone whom I haven’t talked to in a while, who was having a virtual dinner party with friends of mine in Chicago and Boston, and they were commenting, “Why didn’t we ever think to do this before? We could have done this for a long time, and it never occurred to us.” 

Now it has. And my hope is that some of these kinds of things—that can keep us connected with distant friends, and reconnect us with people we haven’t talked to in a while—stick with us,and that we are learning through this how to use technology for what it’s really good for, which is connecting us at a distance. If we can maintain that over the long run, it will be a silver lining that will come out of this for all of us. 

How has your research changed your own behavior?

One thing that researchers are often asked is how their work affects their lives personally. And if you’re a psychologist, you’re dealing with things in research all the time that are deeply personal and relevant to you in daily life. In the work that we’ve done on the surprising power of sociality, how positively others respond when you reach out and connect with them, that has had a really meaningful effect on how I live my life.

For instance, one thing we have learned is that people underestimate how positively others respond to compliments. This is even among married couples. Over the past few weeks, as we’ve been socially distancing, I have every morning been taking a cup of coffee in to my wife as she’s sleeping. I get up early with our daughter and take her outside, and I go in and put a little compliment on a sticky note on my wife’s coffee mug. She wakes up to a new compliment every morning. Over the past week and a half, it hasn’t grown tired. Every morning, she wakes up with a little positive note, and it’s great. Yesterday, she returned the favor to me by getting me some gifts and wrapping them, just to show me how much she loves me and appreciates those acts. That was wonderful.

We also underestimate how positively other people respond to our random acts of kindness. The other day, two of my kids had gotten into a fight and were being nasty with each other. I asked them, “How does this make you feel right now?” And one said, “I’m angry. I’m so mad at her. This was totally unfair.” I gave them an assignment and said, “Your job for the rest of the day is to do a random act of kindness for the other person and then come back and tell me how that feels.” Each of them did something nice for the other one, and they both said it was great, and they in fact enjoyed their afternoon a lot. They spent a lot of time playing together. I asked, “If that feels so good, why don’t you do that more often?” Research even affects how I parent my children.

I have been reconnecting with old friends, first sending them a text saying, “Hey, it’s been too long. When can I call you?” I have been trying to schedule that every day, just a little bit of social reconnection that I don’t think I would have done before the social-distancing measures. I do this not just because I know I’ll feel better when I reach out and connect, but because I have confidence that on average they will appreciate the reconnection opportunity as well. So my research has had a powerful effect on how I live my life. When I get into an approach-or-avoidance situation, where I could reach out and do something positive for somebody else or hold back, I’m more likely to reach out and approach another person than I am to hold back and avoid him or her.

I received two emails earlier this week that I thought were telling. One came from my dad, and one came from my Booth colleague Ed O’Brien. My dad told me a story about how he was trying to reach out and connect with a person, someone with whom he stays regularly connected and for whom he provides some care. And this recipient wasn’t feeling great about only talking on the phone and wanted to meet with him in person. That wasn’t possible at this time of social distancing, but what Dad decided to do was to nevertheless tell him, “I’m going to come over.”

He sat in this person’s driveway. Your voice carries more than 6 ft., and they sat about 12 ft. apart and were able to talk. My dad said, “It was like Christmas had come,” in describing how happy they both felt at this gift of being able to connect with each other. 

Ed O’Brien, one of our associate professors of behavioral science, emailed me the other day, saying that he had somebody come over to deal with an issue he was having in his apartment. They kept distance from each other but got a chance to talk, to just connect a little bit from across the room. He, too, said it was like Christmas had come early to both parties, and I thought that language was telling.

What is Christmas, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition? It’s a time when we get gifts from each other that make us feel great, and I don’t think that language was an accident. Right now, you have an opportunity to give a gift to somebody else by reaching out positively and doing something prosocial.

[American actor] Brad Pitt was interviewed by the New York Times not long ago, and he said that he has come to realize that he has an opportunity to brighten someone’s day. He described that as a rare gift. It’s not a rare gift at all. We all have that opportunity to brighten someone’s day—or in my dad’s and in Ed’s words, to make this moment feel a little bit like Christmas. That is especially true now. We have a surprising amount of power to brighten someone’s day, make it feel a little bit like Christmas, and play Santa Claus by reaching out and connecting to others in positive ways—as long as we choose to use that power that we have.