Times of crisis can change the way we interact with each other in ways that can surprise us and deepen our social bonds. Our VP of Program Management Jennifer McLaughlin experienced just this on a call the other day with our partner Dr. Cindy Kin at Stanford. As Jennifer recalls, “at the end of the meeting, Dr. Kin’s daughter climbed on top of her and waved hello. Responding with an “Ahh,” before I knew it, both of our little girls were hopping on the video chat to introduce themselves.”
And this newfound camaraderie didn’t end there. “A week or so later, our partner Allie Frear at the Duke intensive care unit and I were discussing a project when her golden retriever popped in to join in on the call. We then chatted about our dogs and their love of our quarantine routines….walks, walks and more walks!”
So much has changed in the past few months
We’ve come a long way since the instance of BBC dad, where Professor Robert Kelly’s children burst into his office while he was being interviewed on screen, prompting him to nudge his daughter away and for his wife to (literally) dive into the room to retrieve their two unknowing offspring. Compare this scene of profuse embarrassment and apologies to today’s scenes, where interruptions are welcome and our collaborators happily introduce us to their behind-the-scenes lives, rumpled with kids and pets that eagerly bring their own quarantine agenda (be it “play with me” or “feed me”).
This shift in familiarity extends to clinical care environments as well. Our partner Nadia Dowshen, the director of Adolescent HIV Services and the Gender Clinic, and PolicyLab faculty at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, described in an article a recent telemedicine call with a patient exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms: “As we talked—having decided he needed only supportive care for now—I was distracted by the artwork on his walls. I commented how much I liked it and he shared that he was the painter. Unfortunately, there was no way to get him tested safely, but I suggested painting when he felt better as a coping technique for stress. When we understand the context of people’s lives and their environments, instead of just writing a prescription, we can design treatment plans that fit into patients’ daily routines.”
It feels as though a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic in general, and quarantine life in particular, have brought us closer in a way that we hadn’t anticipated. This sentiment is echoed in scenes from across the globe, from John Krasinski’s uplifting makeshift YouTube show Some Good News which features the outpour of heartwarming moments and acts of kindness that have sprouted out of the pandemic, to the myriad ways in which scientists have changed how they collaborate in their research in order to make swift, unfettered progress. As Amy Abernathy, MD, PhD, Principal Deputy Commissioner and Acting CIO of the FDA, recently said in an interview, “one of the things I’ve learned through the COVID-19 story is the importance of community. It has been amazing how people have come together with a sense of purpose and contribution.” Cooperation has never felt more ubiquitous, or more natural.
Research confirms what observation suggests
The casual observation that the public health crisis we are experiencing has brought us together is supported by research on the impact of acute stress and pain on human judgment and decision-making.
Take stress, for example. Researchers found that acute stress may actually lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior. A study by Von Dawans et al. (2012) asked participants to undergo a stressful situation (a public speaking activity followed by solving math equations in the spotlight), and then play economic “games” where they were asked to make decisions about trust, sharing, and punishment. The researchers found that after performing the stressful tasks, participants were more trusting of others, behaved in a more trustworthy manner themselves, and tended to be more cooperative and prosocial, generously sharing their profits from the game with strangers.
In another set of experiments on the social impact of pain, researchers Bastian, Jetten & Ferris (2014) found that shared pain served as an impetus for social bonding among strangers. The researchers asked participants to perform a painful task with a group of strangers — holding their hands in ice cold (< 3 °C) water, doing an extended wall squat (with their backs straight against the wall and knees bent at 90°), or eating a raw Bird’s Eye chili pepper — and then asked them to report their feelings about the other group members and play an economic game (similar to those played in the stress experiment by Von Dawans et al.) to measure cooperation. Their results mirrored that of the researchers studying acute stress: when participants had a shared experience of pain, they felt psychologically closer to their group (an increase in perceived bonding), and behaved more cooperatively in the game.
The global pandemic has brought us together
Taken together, these studies on the impact of acutely stressful activities and painful events can shed some light on the moments of connection we’ve experienced like those Jennifer shared with Pattern Health partners Dr. Cindy Kin, Allie Frear, and the iTransition study team.
Of course, the instances of stress and pain in these lab studies are quite different from the type of pain that the coronavirus pandemic has introduced. The stress of public speaking and mental arithmetic is relatively minor and short-lived, as is the pain of cold water, squats, or spicy peppers. It may be that the heightened stress and pain of the pandemic leads to even higher rates of cooperation and prosocial behavior than you might expect based on the results of these experiments.
Reading headlines about toilet-paper panic, one might be tempted to conclude that crisis leads to widespread pernicious behavior. While there are always exceptions to the rule, the data generally show the opposite. Most of us are staying home as a result of new rules and resulting norms around physical distancing, and toilet paper shortages can largely be explained by a lot of people buying just a tiny bit more. The media’s narrative of toilet-paper panic is more about clickbait than reality.
Despite the fact that the global pandemic has pushed us apart in distance, in many ways it has brought us closer together in our relationships. And this is one thing we hope endures long after the crisis is behind us.
Von Dawans, B., Fischbacher, U., Kirschbaum, C., Fehr, E., & Heinrichs, M. (2012). The social dimension of stress reactivity: acute stress increases prosocial behavior in humans. Psychological Science, 23(6), 651-660.
Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Ferris, L. J. (2014). Pain as social glue: Shared pain increases cooperation. Psychological Science, 25(11), 2079-2085.