What Research on Isolated Groups Tells Us about Dealing with Social Isolation in the Face of COVID-19
People spend most of their lives living and working with other people in groups. Each of us is a member of many groups, including primary groups (such as families and close friends), secondary groups (work teams, neighborhood associations, service groups), and even larger, multi-member collectives.
So what happens when we find ourselves confined—in the current circumstances by the threat of contagion—to only one small group? How will we cope in these groups, as our social network shrinks from many to very few? Will we seize this time of enforced togetherness to strengthen our attachments to one another—to share, support, and appreciate each other? Or will boredom, tension, and conflict grow with each passing day. Will we, as Henry David Thoreau explained, grow tired of the sameness of our associates, for we have not had “time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at three meals a day and give each other a taste of that old musty cheese that we are.”
Studies of groups that have spent long periods of time in isolation, such as teams stationed in Antarctica and explorers living for months on end in a confined space, suggest that some groups will prosper, but others will falter under the strain. During the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), for example, several countries sent small groups of military and civilian personnel to outposts in Antarctica. These groups were responsible for collecting data about that largely unknown continent, but the violent weather forced the staff to remain indoors most of the time. As months went by with little change in their situation, morale declined and group members’ initial friendliness, good humor, and sensitivity were replaced with lethargy, low morale, grouchiness, and boredom.
Other groups, however, manage to prosper when cut off from the outside world. Some of the isolated groups studied by researchers at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, for example, responded quite positively when sequestered. These researchers confined pairs of volunteers to a 12-by-12-foot room with no means of interacting with anyone outside of that space—no computer, no Internet, no media. Some of these groups imploded—they insisted they be released from the study after only a few days.
Others, however, thrived. Over the course of the isolation, their reliance on one another strengthened, as did their satisfaction with their circumstances. They shared concerns and worries about how they were dealing with the isolation and made adjustments whenever conflicts and tensions arose. They set up schedules of activities, even agreeing on a plan of action for meals, exercise, and recreation. Cooperation, then, was critical. As one person who spent considerable time in an isolated group in an underwater habitat, SEALAB, explained: “If we hadn’t had a real compatible group there might have been a lot of hard feelings. Everybody was cooperative. They all worked and helped each other as much as possible. I think it was a real good group.”
The successful groups also avoided one of the symptoms of maladaptive responding displayed by the less successful groups: withdrawal. The members of groups that did not cope well with isolation, over time, tended to stop interacting with each other—they cocooned instead of communicating, collaborating, cooperating, and caring for one another.
These findings offer hope to those of us hunkering down in small groups to ride out the pandemic. Isolation need not lead inevitably to conflict, stress, and gloom; people can do things that will transform their stressed-out group into a thriving, enjoyable one.
Perhaps most importantly, successful isolated groups sustain high levels of communication within the group. Members do not keep their concerns, grievances, and worries to themselves: they share them with others, who then (ideally) provide support and reassurance. Communication, however, is no sure-fire remedy for avoiding conflict; angry, embattled groups talk just as much as cohesive, harmonious ones, but the messages are very different in emotional tenor, sensitivity, and intent. As confinement continues, each member must take on the role of a socioemotional expert who seeks to keep the peace and maintain the group’s morale.
But quarantined individuals face another challenge: enduring confinement in the same physical space. A space that, under normal circumstances, is comfortable and relaxing can become boring and unpleasant over time, so members must act to maintain the space, to ensure that it is restorative rather than draining and depressing. Time spent in spaces that are interesting, aesthetically pleasing, and compatible with our needs leave us feeling more energized and optimistic. Outdoor spaces, if accessible and safe, should also be visited because natural spaces are generally more restorative than constructed ones.
Moreover, like Sheldon and his preferred chair in Big Bang Theory’s living room, group members will feel more comfortable if they have their spaces that they can territorialize—when they can make the space their own. Privacy needs should also be respected, so long as members of the group do not become reclusive—hiding in their private spaces and no longer socializing with others.
Isolated groups will also do better if members shift from an individualistic orientation to a more collectivistic one. When their individual needs do not mesh with the needs of the group, people often follow their own path, acting as they personally prefer. But when they are members of an isolated group, the group’s needs must come first. In communal groups, people help fellow members more, think of their work as a joint effort, and are more likely to consider the consequences of their actions for others. So, rather than hoarding the Pop Tarts and toilet paper, repeatedly expressing political beliefs that others find offensive, or taking personally any complaint or criticism, people should be diligent in making sure that others’ needs are met. What matters most is the “greater good” rather than “me, myself, and I.”
Individuals who are quarantined in their homes will likely be able to communicate with other family members safely, but interactions with loved ones will not necessarily stave off social loneliness. Unlike emotional loneliness, social loneliness occurs when people feel cut off from their network of friends, acquaintances, and associates. If social loneliness mounts, people may look to their closest intimates for solace, but this burden may put too much pressure on these alliances—a single enduring and intimate relationship can rarely satisfy all one’s need for social contact.
But social loneliness can be countered by reaching out to other people through any (safe) means possible, including technology. Individuals confined to the underwater habitat SEALAB for prolonged periods, for example, responded well once they were able to establish communication with others outside the group. Even those of us who normally rely only grudgingly on our phones and computers to connect with other people can now use these technologies to maintain our social relationships. In darker periods in history when plagues and contagions threatened, quarantine meant total isolation from others. Today, in contrast, few of us are ever really alone, for technology keeps us constantly connected.
Living in a small isolated group will be challenging. This experience, however, offers opportunity in addition to threat. When asked “What is it that makes your life meaningful?” most people answer: their intimate relationships, including their friends and loved ones. And while everyday concerns may cause us to forget this essential fact, spending days (or weeks, or months) with only our partners, our parents, our children, or our best friends may remind us of this truth.
For Further Reading
Altman, I., & Haythorn, W. W. (1967). The ecology of isolated groups. Behavioral Science, 12, 169-182.
Collado, S., Staats, H., Corraliza, J. A., & Hartig, T. (2017). Restorative environments and health. In G. Fleury-Bahi, E. Pol, & O. Navarro (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology and quality of life research (pp. 127-148). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.
Radloff, R., & Helmreich, R. (1968). Groups under stress: Psychological research in SEALAB II. New York: Irvington.
Thoreau, H. D. (1962). Walden and other writings. New York: Bantam.
Don Forsyth is the Colonel Leo K. & Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at the University of Richmond. In addition to his general interest in group processes and psychological aspects of moral judgments, he explores the psychological and interpersonal consequences of success and failure at the group and individual level, individual differences in ethical ideology, and perceptions of leaders.
A previous version of this article was posted on Don Forsyth’s web site, Group Dynamics Resource Page: https://donforsythgroups.wordpress.com