Downside of social distancing? We’ve been instructed to practice social distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve, but are there downsides? This is something largely missing from the discussion of the pandemic to date.   

The corona crisis presents countries around the globe with what is perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced since the Second World War. For one thing, the virus constitutes a truly global threat.

In the absence of a vaccine, our primary defense against it consists in what is now termed ‘social distancing’ — minimizing our contacts with others in public spaces. The CDC is advising Americans to engage in social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Real Downsides of Social Distancing

But are there real downsides of social distancing? When faced with danger, humans draw closer together. Social distancing thwarts this impulse.

Professor Ophelia Deroy from Ludwigs-Maximilians Universitaet in Munich (LMU) and colleagues argue that this dilemma poses a greater threat to society than overtly antisocial behavior.

In an essay that appears in the leading journal Current Biology, an interdisciplinary team of authors that includes Professor Ophelia Deroy, who holds a Chair in the Philosophy of Mind at LMU, underline the dilemma posed by measures designed to promote social distancing.

“Hazardous conditions make us more — not less — social,” Deroy says. “Coping with this contradiction is the biggest challenge we now face.”

They emphasize that people instinctively tend to huddle together when faced with an acute danger. In other words, they actively seek closer social contacts. Studies in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology demonstrate that threatening situations make us even more cooperative and more likely to be socially supportive than we usually are.

According to Guillaume Dezecache, a Social Psychologist, “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. 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.”

Professor Deroy on the Downsides of Social Distancing

  • Social contacts are not an “extra”, which we are at liberty to embrace or reject.
  • They are part of what we call normal.
  • Social distancing stands in opposition to our natural reaction to impending hazards.
  • Our social inclinations now risk exacerbating the danger.

How can we escape from this dilemma?

  • Use the Internet as the best substitute for social interactions.
  • How well, and for how long, our need for social contact can be satisfied by social media remains to be seen.

She recommends that policymakers first acknowledge that the demand for social distancing runs counter to the evolved structure of human cognition.

Secondly, she stresses the importance of widespread access to the Internet as the next best substitute during this crisis.

Click here to read about the downsides of social distancing.