The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped social life in the United States, forcing many to suspend activities that were once considered routine.
As cities move in and out of various stages of reopening and closure, people continue to navigate restrictions on when and where they can see their friends and family. And until there is a coronavirus vaccine, they must also grapple with the probability of recurring outbreaks.
For Prof. Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the pandemic only exacerbates the “modern disease” of loneliness. A leading social psychologist, she says there is a responsibility for policymakers to help guide the public through feelings of uncertainty—a responsibility that too many in the United States have failed to meet.
The following Q&A is edited from a transcript of a March 30 interview with Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing.
How badly could the crisis exacerbate the problem of loneliness?
When we think about the effect of social distancing on people’s mental health, we are clearly concerned about those who are lonely. While some of us are at home with other people, others are stuck alone, or are not with the people who matter most to them. Loneliness is a modern disease that has concerned social scientists, governments, and health providers for a long time. We are particularly concerned about older people.
Digital connection is one thing that our modern life offers, which is great. If we’d had to socially distance ourselves prior to the internet, things would have been much harder. But online communication is not like physical connection. In our evolution as humans, we didn’t learn to connect over a single medium such as voice or text. We need to be with each other, touch each other, so that we feel connected.
In my own research, I’ve looked at the effects of having a meal with someone. My co-researchers and I find that people tend to have much better relationships, work better with each other, and feel less lonely if they eat with other people. People now have started to have meals with others over online meetings. It’s clearly better than nothing—not to mention that it’s super creative—but it’s a poor substitute. You can’t share your dish or smell theirs.
When we think about who is going to feel lonelier during these times, this might be older people, and those people who don’t have family with them. Unfortunately, those are also the people who are more at risk to begin with. In general, when we study loneliness, we are concerned about effects on people who live by themselves, on older people, and that’s tough, even if they master technology.