Wednesday, September 2, 2020

When Social Skills Atrophy

I am sure that we will soon be reading learned treatises about how social isolation has provided us all manner of psychic benefit.

As it happens, it isn't true, but that is not going to stop anyone from explaining how good it is.

We already know that children are suffering for being desocialized, so it remains to be seen how much adults were also being damaged.

By now, we ought to know that social isolation is bad for your mental health. It is bad for your social skills, which directly impacts your mental health.

Few psycho therapists have considered the fact. Fewer psycho analysts have thought about it at all. But, according to an excellent article by Kate Murphy for the New York Times, social isolation causes social skills to atrophy, almost as though they were a muscle. And this makes our social relations more difficult, more fraught and more dramatic.

One might also say that social skills are habitual behaviors and that when we lose a habit we have more difficulty regaining it. For instance, spending too much time eating alone will cause you to lose some part of your impeccable table manners. When you are eating alone you can get away with bad manners. The more you develop bad manners the more difficult it will be to regain your good manners. I am assuming, of course, that you ever had any.

Murphy explains:

As the school year begins amid a global pandemic, many are concerned about the negative impact that virtual or socially distanced learning may have on children’s developing social skills.

But what about grown-ups? It seems adults deprived of consistent and varied peer contact can get just as clumsy at social interactions as inexperienced kids.

Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use. People separated from society — by circumstance or by choice — report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward and intolerant when they return to normal life.

Psychologists and neuroscientists say something similar is happening to all of us now, thanks to the pandemic. We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not. The signs are everywhere: people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.

So, the lockdowns and social distancing, the inability even to go out for dinner, has damaged us. They have caused our social skills to atrophy.

Feeling detached from society, feeling alone and isolated makes us feel vulnerable. And, despite what certain idiots have been telling you, feeling vulnerable is not a good thing. It causes emotional distress. So, you do not want to get in touch with your vulnerability, but you want to regain the ability to connect with other people, especially on the most superficial levels.

Besides, if you want to get in touch with your vulnerability, where do you put your hands?

Murphy continues:

“The first thing to understand is that there are biological reasons for this,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “It’s not a pathology or mental disorder.”

Even the most introverted among us, she said, are wired to crave company. It’s an evolutionary imperative because there’s historically been safety in numbers. Loners had a tough time slaying woolly mammoths and fending off enemy attacks.

So when we are cut off from others, our brains interpret it as a mortal threat. Feeling lonely or isolated is as much a biological signal as hunger or thirst. And just like not eating when you’re starved or not drinking when you’re dehydrated, failing to interact with others when you are lonely leads to negative cognitive, emotional and physiological effects, which Dr. Cacioppo said many of us are likely experiencing now.

Humans are social beings. To see each human as a unique individual is a major philosophical error. Of course, much of the problem lies in how we define individuality, but if we define it in terms of being detached from human company, being self-contained, self-actualized human monads, we are trafficking in a philosophical fiction.

Even if we are socially isolated among intimates, we are still missing out on the day-to-day interaction with acquaintances, colleagues, and even strangers. We cannot, Murphy explains, overcome our need for superficial exchanges by having more intimacy. This will come as a shock to psycho therapists, but it will be for a good cause.

Even if you are ensconced in a pandemic pod with a romantic partner or family members, you can still feel lonely — often camouflaged as sadness, irritability, anger and lethargy — because you’re not getting the full range of human interactions that you need, almost like not eating a balanced diet. We underestimate how much we benefit from casual camaraderie at the office, gym, choir practice or art class, not to mention spontaneous exchanges with strangers.

Considering that psycho therapists are all-in on human intimacy, on human empathy and on love relationships, you can feel confident that these are not what we need. We need a full range of human interactions, beginning with being polite to the dry cleaner.

Murphy continues:

“This daily interacting with individuals out in the world gives you a sense of belonging and security that comes from feeling you are part of, or have access to, a wider community and network,” said Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “Social isolation slashes that network.”

The privation sends our brains into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognize and appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hypervigilant and oversensitive. Layer on top of that a seemingly capricious virus and we’re all tightly coiled for fight or flight.

The more we feel detached from superficial contacts, the kind that define us as members of community, the more we overinterpret and overdramatize the interactions we do have:

You get a sidelong glance and immediately think the other person dislikes you. A confusing comment is interpreted as an insult. At the same time you feel more self-conscious, fearing any missteps will put you further at risk. As a result, social situations, even a friendly phone call, become something to avoid. People start to withdraw, rationalizing they are too tired, didn’t like the person much to begin with or there’s something they’d rather watch on Netflix.

It’s like someone who has learned how to play a game, but who suddenly is deprived of any opportunity to use his skill. He might not forget how to play, but he will need some intensive training to regain his skill:

In every interaction you have to make countless intuitive judgments — interpreting words, gestures and expressions and reacting appropriately. You’ve also got to get the timing and pacing right, as well as titrate how much to share and with whom. Social interplay is one of the most complicated things we ask our brains to do. In normal circumstances, we get a lot of practice, so it becomes somewhat seamless. You don’t think about it. But when you have fewer opportunities to practice, you get off your game. The surreal and clunky quality of virtual or masked interactions just makes matters worse.

This means that when people leave the big city and take up residence in the suburbs, they will not have such an easy time working. Working from home will eventually lose its novelty and companies will be obliged to set up new workplaces. They might feel inclined to use abandoned shopping malls for that purpose. Why else is the countryside dotted with these relics of the pre-Amazon age. But, the important thing is that he exodus from major cities is only the beginning, not the end of the story.

All told, kudos to Murphy and to the social psychologists who are researching this topic.


Giordano Bruno said...

At home, in isolation, I read Tacitus, Livy, and Aristotle. I am fulfilled. I lift weights and hit a heavy bag and take apart and reassemble weapons. I built a new wing on the house. I am strong and self sufficient. I have a lot of sex.

In the social domain, I am subjected to TDS, movies based on comic books, sportzball, and discussions about self-help therapy books and white fragility. I have to listen to wahmen complain about other wahmen. I eat junk at restaurants and get fat and weak. I watch Netflix with ice cream and fall asleep instead of having sex.

David Foster said...

This partly depends, surely, on whether one is in a comfortable house with a yard OR a tiny apartment. Also one who...if is living with.

urbane legend said...

I find this just a bit of a stretch. Any opportunity for even minimal practice of basic social skils should keep them reasonably intact. How hard are the basics, anyway? Good morning, thank you, please, It's good to see you, and so on. Start from a smile and friendly language and things should go well. But then I live in a state where we weren't threatened with being cast into outer darkness for appearing in public. I will admit I told the nice person at the door of the big box home center no pretty firmly when asked, " Would you like a mask, sir? " But that was because of the mask uselessness, not rudeness.

trigger warning said...

I've been informally observing this for a while now. It's fascinating. The lockdowns, masks, and "social distancing" have achieved Erich Honecker's social objectives without the help of an institutional Stasi.

Rob Weatherill said...

In my book The Anti-Oedipus Complex (Routledge 2017), I described the drift towards the infantile in Western culture under ten headings. 1) Excess of hate over love often turned against the self. 2) Retreat from Otherness of the other sex and the other generation, in favour of the self and the Same. 3) Rejection of and hatred for authority of any kind. 4) Predisposition to pre-Oedipal aims, infantile, demanding,“relating” to part objects. 5) The imaginary and the virtual displace the Symbolic register. 6) The notion of “complex” implies a certain pseudo-stability, even an intense resistance to change. 7) Disavowal of reality, leading to borderline phenomena. 8) The replacement of the Ego Ideal and social values in favour of the tyrannical and narcissistic Ideal Ego on the one hand and archaic superego on the other. 9) Failure to initiate and/or maintain relationships and the social bond. 10) Indifference to these developments. I would suggest that all these features have been increased by Covid and the social restrictions applied.