How will social distancing affect our mental well-being?

Apr 09, 2020

Silicon Valley has given us plenty of ways to connect with others remotely. But Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach says that those mediums aren’t perfect substitutes for face-to-face interaction, and may not be enough to stave off loneliness during a period of prolonged social distancing—particularly for those most at risk for loneliness to begin with.

Video Transcript

When we think about the effects of social distancing on people’s psychology, we are clearly concerned about loneliness. While some of us might be stuck at home with other people, others are alone, or they are not with the people that are close to them.

Loneliness is already a disease that concerns social scientists. It’s concerned government health providers for a long time. And, in particular, in their older age, we are concerned about people staying alone.

These days, that’s the situation for many people. And what we have is online substitutes, which are probably nothing like the real experience of being with someone.

Digital connection is one thing that our modern life offers, which is great. If we had to social distance ourselves before the invention of internet, it would’ve been much, much harder. But online communication is not like physical communication. Our evolution as people didn’t teach us to connect over just the medium of voice, or seeing an e-mail. We need to be with each other.

In my own research, we looked at the effects of having a meal with someone. We found that people have much better relationships. They are better coordinated, if they go to work with each other. They are also less lonely if they eat with other people.

Now, I’m happy to report that it appears that people are trying to have meals with other people over the internet. It’s clearly better than nothing. But it’s a poor substitute. 

Many people don’t quite feel the same about online connection. I can say from my own experience that I, like everybody else, exercise with an app. Doing yoga with my app is nothing like going to a class and being with other people. It’s just not the same type of connection.

When we think about who is going to feel lonelier during this time, that might be older people, the people that don’t have a family with them. Unfortunately, those are also the people that are more at risk to begin with.

In general, when we study loneliness, we are concerned about effects on people that live by themselves, on the older people. And that’s tough. Even if they master technology, if you think about a person who’s living by herself, there is only a small part of the day when she’s going to have an online communication. 

She is also not going to interact with her kids, or her grandchildren, possibly, in the way that we usually interact with people. We sit next to them. We read next to them. We touch them. We hug them. A conversation over the internet is something, but it’s not really the thing that we believe keeps people healthy.

I would also say that it’s an interesting paradox, because we are, in a way, pursuing this together. We are trying, as a society, to solve a problem. And for someone who’s studying coordination between people, for someone who’s looking at how small and large groups work together on a joint problem, this is a fascinating time. We can see how humanity is solving a problem together, and what do we do that works, and how can we improve?

It is so paradoxical, in my mind, that we study how to work with other people in a time of loneliness: sitting alone in front of our computer, working with other people.