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

May 12, 2020

Sections Behavioral Science

Collections COVID-19 Crisis

Long periods of social distancing could negatively impact our willingness to connect with people in the future. But Chicago Booth’s Nicholas Epley is hopeful that we'll use this time to learn new ways that technology can help maintain social bonds, and that we’ll discover the power of reconnecting with old friends and employing random acts of kindness to strengthen our relationships.

Video Transcript

I have both an optimistic side and a pessimistic side to me when thinking about the long-term outcomes of this pandemic. The pessimist in me is worried that the concern about catching a virus from other people is going to push people to be even more disconnected from others than they might already otherwise be in their daily lives.

We find in our research that people are happier, they enjoy experiences more, when they’re reaching out and connecting with others. And that’s especially true, or at least especially surprisingly true, when people are connecting with strangers, when they’re actually expanding their social networks to connect with folks they wouldn’t otherwise be connecting to.

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. I hope that’s not true.

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 is unpleasant.

The second thing that I’m optimistic about is that we are learning how to maintain some of those connections effectively, even at a distance, that we didn’t seem to use so much before. Before the pandemic broke, most of us as psychologists had a pretty negative view of technology, recognizing that mostly what it did was enable us to stay disconnected from other people in the moment—that as we carry these phones around, that kept us from contacting folks who were nearby.

Now, though, just over the last few weeks, we’re having virtual cocktail parties develop. I talked to a friend on the phone who I haven’t talked to in a while who was having one of these over dinner—had a virtual dinner party between friends of mine here in Chicago and friends of mine in Boston. And they were commenting while they were having this, “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 to do this.” Now it has. 

I hope those 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, then that will be a silver lining that will come out of this for all of us.

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

One thing, for instance, we have learned is that people underestimate how positively others respond to compliments. This is even among married couples. So over the last 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 earlier with our daughter and take her out, and I go in and I put a little compliment on a sticky note on the coffee mug, and she wakes up to a new compliment every morning. And so far, over the last week and a half, it hasn’t grown tired at all, which our research suggests. Every morning she wakes up with a little positive note, and it’s just great. Yesterday she returned the favor to me by giving me some gifts and wrapping them and having them on the table just to show me how much she loved me and appreciated those acts. And that was wonderful.

We also underestimate how positively other people respond to our random acts of kindness, kind acts that we do. The other day, two of my kids had gotten into a fight with each other, and they were just being kind of nasty with each other. And I asked them, “How does this make you feel right now?” And they said, “I’m angry. I’m so mad at her. This was totally unfair.” And it was clear they were angry, and I gave them an assignment. I 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.” And so they did. 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 that afternoon. And I asked them, “If that feels so good, why don’t you do that more often?” And they have been doing that more often. So it affects even how I parent my children.

I have been recently reconnecting with old friends, people I haven’t talked to in a while, sending them a text first saying, “Hey, it’s been too long. When can I call you?” And I’ve been trying to schedule that every day—just a little bit of social reconnection that I don’t think I would have done before. And I do that 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.