Thursday 23 April 2020

Social distancing

An interdisciplinary team led by Professor Ophelia Deroy, associate researcher at the Institute of Philosophy (IP) part of the University of London’s School of Advanced study, offers insights into how people behave in response to threat as countries face the biggest global crisis since World War II. 

The team includes renowned social neuroscientist Chris Frith, professor of neuropsychology at UCL and honorary researcher at IP, and Guillaume Dezecache, a social psychologist at France’s Université Clermont Auvergne, who worked on responses to terrorist attacks.

Contrary to many media reports, panic and selfish behaviour are not the prevalent human responses to perceived danger. Their new paper reveals that people ‘affiliate and seek social contact even more when exposed to a threat’ – which is a massive challenge when they are urged to isolate themselves and conduct ‘social distancing.

Today (23 April) sees the release of their paper, ‘Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch’. Published in the prestigious scientific journal Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), it shines a spotlight on the mechanisms behind the psychological responses to coronavirus pandemics and includes policy recommendations. Discussions can be followed on Twitter using the hashtag #currentbiology. The paper, like others at the moment, is being expedited because of the urgency of the findings for academics, health authorities and policymakers.

‘The pictures of empty supermarket shelves, and parks full of people sunbathing that are circulating everywhere, are, if you think about it, contradictory. Are people responding with too much fear and selfishness? Or are they ignoring the danger and just enjoying hanging out as usual?

‘More importantly, what we point out is that they are misleading. The problem is not that we become selfish or ignore the danger. When we realise there is a danger, we crave social contact even more,’ explains Ophelia Deroy, who is also professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where she leads a project on collective interactions funded by the NOMIS foundation. 

What the authors want to stress is that:

  • It is humans’ social, rather than antisocial, responses to danger that are the problem. Social distancing goes against our natural responses to threat, so messaging has to understand this. Social contact is not a ‘plus’ that we can dispense from – it is a state of normality.
  • In normal times, a strong focus on the internet and social media is often viewed as antisocial. But in times of danger this represents an acceptable and very effective alternative to physical closeness – social interaction without proximity. 
  • This message is very important, particularly as the more vulnerable are also the less connected due to poverty, age and sickness. 

The researchers argue that affiliation and contact-seeking are key responses to danger and as natural social tendencies, they are likely to hinder the observance of physical distancing during the current pandemic. There is growing evidence from neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology that menace makes us more socially supportive and cooperative. Now, many can reach out – virtually, but no less meaningfully – to neighbours, distant relatives, or even anonymous and purely potential beneficiaries on social media. Universal internet access has been viewed as essential to freedom of expression. Now it is essential for public health. 

Quotes from the authors 

‘While we should in principle avoid people who are infected, there is a greater social force at play here: people are afraid, they seek contact with others, and this puts all of us at greater risk of infection. This is the evolutionary mismatch we describe. Affiliation is a natural response to danger, and potentially our biggest problem now, unless we find practical solutions for all of us to easily ‘affiliate’ online,’ says Professor Guillaume Dezecache.

‘There is a rather optimistic belief that many of our problems will be solved by technology. For once, this belief may be justified: we can cope with the most unnatural requirement for social distancing through access to the internet,’ says Professor Chris Frith.

‘Health organisations, governments, and local communities, need to act with an evidence-based picture of how humans respond under threat. They present social distancing as a ‘necessary renouncement’ and call upon civic conscience. What our conscience tells us is exactly the opposite: Help and seek contact,’ says Professor Deroy.  


For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 /