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Humans Wired to Huddle When Afraid, Making Quarantine More Difficult

When faced with danger, humans are wired to draw closer together, and social distancing thwarts this impulse. In a new paper, published in the journal Current Biology, experts argue that this natural behavior poses a greater threat to society than overtly antisocial behavior.

The COVID-19 crisis constitutes a truly global threat, and in the absence of a vaccine, our primary defense against it involves “social distancing” — minimizing our contacts with others in public spaces.

“Hazardous conditions make us more — not less — social. Coping with this contradiction is the biggest challenge we now face,” said Professor Ophelia Deroy, who holds a chair in philosophy of mind at Ludwigs-Maximilians Universitaet in Munich (LMU).

In the essay, Deroy and an interdisciplinary team of authors highlight the dilemma posed by measures designed to promote social distancing.

Seen from this point of view, our current problem lies not in selfish reactions to the crisis or a refusal to recognize the risks, as images of banks of empty shelves in supermarkets or throngs of strollers in our public parks would have us believe.

Deroy and her co-authors Drs. Chris Frith, a social neurobiologist based at University College London, and Guillaume Dezecache, a social psychologist at the Université Clermont Auvergne in France, argue that such scenes are not representative.

They emphasize that people instinctively tend to huddle together when faced with an acute danger; in other words, they actively seek closer social contacts.

Research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology have already shown that we are not as egotistical as some think. In fact, researchers continue to produce evidence that threatening situations make us even more cooperative and more likely to be socially supportive than we usually are.

“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,” said Dezecache.

The demands now being made by governments to self-isolate and follow social distancing guidelines are fundamentally at odd with our social instincts, and therefore represent a serious challenge for most people.

“After all,” said Deroy, “social contacts are not an ‘extra’, which we are at liberty to refuse. They are part of what we call normal.”

The authors therefore contend that, because social distancing stands in opposition to our natural reaction to impending hazards, our social inclinations — rather than antisocial reactions to rationally recognized threats — now risk exacerbating the danger.

How might we solve this problem? According to Deroy, we need to revise what the Internet can offer. The argument goes as follows: In the pre-pandemic world, the Internet and social media were often looked upon as being decidedly unsocial. But in times like the present, they provide an acceptable and effective alternative to physical contact, as they enable social interactions in the absence of physical closeness.

Social media makes it possible for large numbers of people to reach out virtually to neighbors, relatives, friends and other contacts.

“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,” Frith said.

“How well, and for how long, our need for social contact can be satisfied by social media remains to be seen,” said Deroy.

But the researchers do have two important recommendations for policymakers: First, they must acknowledge that the demand for social distancing is not only politically highly unusual, it runs counter to the evolved structure of human cognition.

Secondly, nowadays, free access to the Internet is not only a prerequisite for freedom of speech. In the present situation, it is also making a positive contribution to public health.

“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.”

Source: Ludwigs-Maximilians Universitaet in Munich 

Humans Wired to Huddle When Afraid, Making Quarantine More Difficult

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Humans Wired to Huddle When Afraid, Making Quarantine More Difficult. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Apr 2020 (Originally: 25 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 25 Apr 2020
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