People tend to draw closer together when faced with danger.
This is what makes social distancing so difficult, new research explains.
The psychological problem could pose one of the biggest barriers to overcoming COVID-19.
Minimising social contact in public spaces is the only defence we currently have against the virus.
However, human nature is fundamentally social.
Professor Ophelia Deroy, study co-author, said:
“Hazardous conditions make us more — not less — social.
Coping with this contradiction is the biggest challenge we now face.”
Reviewing evidence from psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, the study’s authors find that threatening situations make people more cooperative and socially supportive.
Dr Guillaume Dezecache, the study’s first author, explained:
“When people are afraid, they seek safety in numbers.
But in the present situation, this impulse increases the risk of infection for all of us.
This is the basic evolutionary conundrum that we describe.
After all, social contacts are not an ‘extra’, which we are at liberty to refuse.
They are part of what we call normal.”
One answer to this problem that many people have been exploiting is social media.
While before the pandemic social media was often seen as unsocial, now it can provide an effective alternative to physical contact.
Profesor Chris Frith, study co-author, said:
“Our innate inclinations are cooperative rather than egoistic.
But access to the Internet makes it possible for us to cope with the need for social distancing.”
Social media may only be partially effective, though, Professor Deroy said:
“How well, and for how long, our need for social contact can be satisfied by social media remains to be seen.”
Free access to the internet, then, is vital for public health, said Professor Deroy:
“This is an important message, given that the most vulnerable sections of society are often those who, owing to poverty, age and illness, have few social contacts.”
The study was published in the journal Current Biology (Dezecache et al., 2020).