The Social Distancing Effect

@IE University

As COVID-19 continues to move among us, societies across the world are attempting to keep up with the new challenges the pandemic brings. One important strategy in the world’s efforts to adapt to and control the virus is social distancing.

When it comes to understanding the implications and effects of social distancing on our communities, we can turn to the social sciences. This branch of science deals with human society and relationships; how our social systems function, and how we interact.

So what can social science teach us about social distancing?

Social distancing

What is social distancing?

Social distancing is a means of slowing down the spread of contagious disease. It involves restricting the gathering of large groups of people, the closing of public spaces, and the cancelling of large-scale events.

By curbing the pace of the disease, social distancing buys societies the time necessary to prepare and stops health systems from becoming overwhelmed.

Right now, many of us are experiencing the reality of social distancing for ourselves. Shops, restaurants, cinemas, galleries, offices and schools have all been closed. Festivals and sports events have been cancelled. Professionals are working remotely, students are learning online, and social interaction now mostly takes place via apps.

How does this relate to social science?

It’s impossible to understand the spread of pandemics, and Covid-19 in particular, without having some understanding of how societies work and how humans behave. This is the remit of the social sciences.

In particular, social science can help us understand the impact of imposed isolation.

What are the effects of social distancing?

We are social creatures. We are evolutionarily hard-wired to be with people. And so social isolation can lead to problems such as loneliness and depression—both of which have their own detrimental effect on our physical health. Social science has shown that connection helps us to deal with stress. When we have no one around to support us, stress can feel unsurmountable.

However, while social distancing might risk alienating those who already were at risk of loneliness—such as the elderly, disabled, or mentally unwell—it might also be a catalyst to encourage people to make more of an effort to connect.

When socializing isn’t simply a question of casual chat in the office or a passing exchange in the library, we might get more out of our relationships. When it’s necessary to make an effort—to send a message or pick up the phone—we might start to realize how much we need our friends and family, and invest more energy into maintaining these relationships.

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How can we ensure social distancing is successful?

Implementing successful lockdowns and social distancing measures require an understanding of social science in order to be effective.

We need to understand the human capacity for cooperation and compassion. How do humans respond to being asked to make sacrifices to protect others—especially people we don’t know? How do we respond to our freedom being restricted in the name of the greater good?

According to behavioral science, getting people to cooperate depends on three things.

  • Firstly, clear communication: we are more likely to co-operate if we are clear on why a particular measure is necessary.
  • Secondly, we are more likely to make sacrifices for a group if we identify with that particular group.
  • Thirdly, some form of punishment is necessary for those who don’t cooperate. In the case of COVID-19, this takes the form of both social disapproval and hefty fines.

In fact, getting people to stay in their homes has been a struggle for governments. Footage has circulated of crowds flocking to beaches and party goers continuing to party, despite warnings. It seems many haven’t grasped the risk they pose to others by going out and about.

Social science teaches us about how humans react to risk, and therefore how best to communicate danger. Research suggests different individuals tend to either over- or under-estimate risk. Young people, for example, during the 2003 SARS outbreak, were found to generally believe the press “exaggerated” the effects of the disease.

How can we communicate the importance of social distancing? Social science research suggests that the use of powerful language and images on social media can help convey the message—as well as asking role models like celebrities to urge their fans to follow government guidance.

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How can social science help me?

The social sciences can teach us how to best cope with stress and isolation. Here are some tips drawn from social science research to help you deal with social distancing:

  • Try to remain optimistic. Case studies of US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, confined in tiny cells called “tiger cages,” show that those who managed to stay positive in the face of adversity enjoyed long-term psychological health.
  • Stay connected. Pick up the phone and call friends and family. Check in on people who might be struggling. Not only will it make them feel good—but acts of kindness have been proven to make us feel better too.
  • Practice mindfulness. It’s a well-researched way to alleviate stress that involves focusing on the here and now. Put aside 15 minutes each day for meditation. And when you feel yourself getting anxious, try a breathing exercise.
  • Avoid information overload. Research shows that too much negative news is bad for us. And yet in what’s known as a “negativity bias,” we can’t stop reading it. We’re wired to pay attention to unsettling information to ensure our own survival. But in this particular situation, bad news just makes us feel sad and anxious. Limiting your exposure to the media can help you to stay focused and calm.
  • Make time for laughter. Studies have shown that laughter releases serotonin, which means it has a similar effect to antidepressants.

Around the world, we are all facing a very trying time. Yet through social distancing and by learning from the social sciences, we can ensure that we get through this together, emerging stronger and with a positive mindset.