It’s been over 12 weeks of lockdown in the United Kingdom, and restrictions to meet up with other people are only now being gradually lifted. Having severely limited social interactions means people have been missing out on fun events, such as family celebrations, going to restaurants, and other activities that add to the spice of life. But apart from being enjoyable, such events serve a critical function in creating and maintaining the social bonds that are essential not just for psychological well-being, but also for physical health.
Indeed, it’s been suggested that meaningful social relationships are a necessity on a par with the need for food and warmth because human beings evolved to live in closely-knit communities. Living alone, or having to be isolated from others, as has been the required function of social distancing and shielding, is literally an unnatural state to be in. Importantly, when valuable connections are missing, people are more prone to suffer from a range of health conditions, ranging from the common cold to coronary heart disease. In addition, our research has shown that social support can even make the physical environment appear less challenging: Participants who stood at the base of a hill judged it to be less steep when they had a friend by their side, than when they were alone. Thus, sadly, in a time when it’s essential to fend off the potentially life-threatening COVID-19 disease, we are often unable to draw on one of the most effective antidotes to stress and ill health.
While the benefits of fostering relationships with significant others are clear, what has received less attention are the more casual interactions in daily life that we often take for granted, even if they are just incidental, and we typically don’t give them all that much thought. For example, having a brief chat with a neighbour or a sales assistant at a shop may last for only a few minutes, but doing so creates what’s been called a “weak tie”, namely a contact with people outside one’s close social circle. Such relationships with strangers and acquaintances typically involve relatively infrequent contact that is not very intense.
What is remarkable about weak ties, however, is that they can be a surprising source of positive feelings and well-being. For example, research has shown that making an effort to engage with the barista preparing your coffee at Starbucks can lead to an increase in positive affect, and a decrease in negative affect. In this study participants were instructed to “have a genuine interaction with the cashier—smile, make eye contact to establish a connection, and have a brief conversation.” In contrast, participants in the control condition were asked to “make your interaction with the cashier as efficient as possible—have your money ready, and avoid unnecessary conversation.” Compared to this control group, participants who talked to the barista reported improved affect and well-being, and a higher sense of belonging. Importantly, it also led to greater satisfaction with their Starbucks experience.
Similar effects were observed for commuters who were instructed to talk to strangers sitting next to them on the train, and to get to know them a bit. Participants universally dreaded doing so, and incorrectly predicted that it would be awkward and unpleasant. In reality, it significantly improved their mood. These findings fit with a larger research area on what has been called “affective forecasting”, which suggests that people are not very good at predicting what will make them feel happy (or miserable) in the future.
Of course, for the last three months people’s opportunities to establish weak ties have been very much limited. Now that more and more non-essential shops are starting to do business again, we can only speculate whether people will be willing to engage in their pre-COVID-19 consumer routines again while the virus remains active and in circulation. Apart from the perceived danger of venturing outside of the safe confines of our homes, retail experiences that involve having to wait in a queue before entering a shop, wearing a mask, and keeping a distance from other customers and shop personnel may simply not be all that enticing.
What’s more, if we consider the benefits of the weak ties described above, it’s an open question as to whether people will seek out the casual interactions that could in fact give an unexpected lift to their mood. Are consumers going to act like the participants in the “efficient condition” in the study described above, who just want to complete the business transaction and then get out of the shop as quickly as possible? Or, instead, might they in fact be inclined to linger just a bit longer, to take advantage of the casual contacts that they had been deprived of for such a long time? The latter would certainly be more desirable from a public health perspective, apart from bringing much needed business to retailers.
As the country starts to re-open shops, offices and other places that afford social interactions, it is worth considering how to facilitate the brief, casual encounters that we used to take for granted, but that have become increasingly rare over the last few weeks. Doing so could pay off in multiple ways.
About the author
Dr Simone Schnall, Visiting Fellow
Dr. Simone Schnall is a Reader in Experimental Social Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the Cambridge Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory. She previously held appointments at Harvard University, the University of Southern California and the University of Virginia. Her research explores ... Learn more