This has been a year of extreme social deprivation. But the pandemic — like all pandemics before it — eventually will end. Then what? Will we easily transition from isolation back into the real world? For most of us, the answer probably is yes, although it may take time to adapt, according to social scientists who study human behavior.
“Social skills are like a muscle,” says Richard Slatcher, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia who studies the effects of relationships on health and well-being. “If we are out of practice, it will take a while to get back on the social bike, if you will, and ride it again. It has now become second nature to keep your guard up. We’re habituated to this new normal, so it will take a while to return to the old normal.”
Nevertheless, scientists predict that after many more Americans are vaccinated, society might resemble what followed in the aftermath of the 1918 influenza pandemic, a decade known as the Roaring Twenties, an age striking in its excesses. There were flappers, jazz-age partying, Prohibition (and the flouting of it), working women (with their newly won right to vote), flourishing cities, sexual freedom and gangsters, all fueled by a booming economy.
“It was the biggest street party of all time,” says Robin Dunbar, emeritus fellow, Magdalen College, and professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. “I’m sure it will happen again. Who knows what form it will take, but it will surely result in a resurgence of social events, including concert-type gigs, but also just more meeting up in the pub.”
Slatcher offers a similar prediction. “People have been cooped up for a long period of time,” he says. “We could be living through the Roaring ‘20s again — this time, the Roaring 2020s.”
Before the celebrations begin, however, there probably will be some trepidation as people adjust to their newly restored freedom.
“It may seem a bit strange in the beginning, for example, right now, I can’t imagine going to a concert, says Jeni Stolow, a social behavioral scientist and assistant professor in the Temple University College of Public Health. “People, jobs and society should be aware that the first few months of reopening society are going to be awkward. You won’t be able to just leave the Zoom room anymore. People have been able to dissociate or hide in virtual meetings — turning off their camera, muting themselves — and are out of practice in traditional human engagement. It may take some time for people to get comfortable, engaged and tuned in during in-person work meetings, school or even among friends.
“But most people have gone a year or longer without seeing friends, families or experiencing human connection,” Stolow adds. “I do think most people will actually try to be more social to make up for the lost time. I expect to see more travel, reunions, brunches and parties.”
The desire for physical contact is inherent. From an evolutionary perspective, we are programmed to respond positively to touch, a need that began in primates, and, while we have had to contain that desire during the pandemic, we probably haven’t lost it entirely, according to Dunbar.
“Stroking the fur or skin triggers the endorphin system,” he says. “That is how monkeys and apes maintain friendships. We continue to use touch in the form of stroking, hugs, cuddling, much more than we realize.”
Handshaking is usually reserved for strangers or new acquaintances, but even that has disappeared as a result of the pandemic. Dunbar, however, predicts a comeback for this long-standing way of greeting.
“It will happen naturally,” he says. “Handshaking is so ingrained into us from early childhood, and elbow bumps are so awkward and unnatural, that we will just revert to type.”
However, not everyone will jump in with abandon, even as time passes, experts warn. People’s basic nature, age and other characteristics will influence how they respond to the end of coronavirus restrictions.
“I think the way people will come out of COVID will depend profoundly upon individual differences — for example, are you extroverted or introverted, resilient or reactive, calm or stressed?” says Dacher Keltner, a University of California at Berkeley professor of psychology and director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory.
Those differences account for how people behave in the aftermath of complex events and traumas, Keltner says. “I would expect one tendency to be a bit like the Roaring ‘20s — highly social people who are overwhelmed by the social delights of being out again, and perhaps binge or overdo it,” he says. “For many, getting to hug friends again, and family and loved ones and romantic partners, and to return to the friendly high-fives and fist bumps of friendship, will be profoundly delightful.”
On the other hand, “I would expect a different story for people who are introverted, highly sensitive, socially anxious, even fearful,” Keltner adds. “In general, these individuals tend to find social encounters pretty intense and the cause of anxiety and uncertainty. Perhaps they found greater comfort during covid sheltering in place. And getting out may be daunting. And nerve wracking.”
Furthermore, people should prepare themselves for some relationships to end, Dunbar says. “The weaker ones will fade away and be replaced because the break will have destabilized them further,” he says. “But that’s sort of normal. Friendships turn over on a fairly steady basis, fast for the younger folk, more slowly for the older ones.”
There also will be generational differences. Older people may have a tougher time forming new relationships if they’ve lost existing ones, either through prolonged separation or death.
“From age 65-ish, people’s social networks go into terminal decline as they shed members,” Dunbar says. “This is mainly because their peer group — always the mainstay of one’s social network — increasingly die or move away, and older people don’t have the motivation or energy to get up and replace them with new friends. Nor do they really know where to go now to meet people — which is why activities for the elderly are so important.
“When youngsters lose friends, they simply go out to the usual venues and find more to fill up the empty slots,” he adds. “It is not a risk-taking issue. It is simply motivation and energy. Indeed, turnover in this age group is very high.”
Children should fare well, in fact, better than many people expect, Dunbar says. “Children are designed to be very resilient and bounce back,” he says. “If they didn’t, they’d never survive. I am not convinced by any of the hysterical claims that children’s lives are being ruined by lockdown. Irksome it certainly is, and it may exacerbate the condition of those already suffering from depression, or the like. But most will have forgotten all about it in a year or so.
“Education-wise? In the long run, probably not a big deal either, unless education has sunk to the low of only being able to remember a handful of facts,” he adds. “Something everyone seems to forget is that education is supposed to be about learning how to learn for oneself.”
Most important, as we move into the post-pandemic landscape, the past year will serve as a reminder of how precious human connections are, Stolow says.
“We took for granted things like seeing friends at school, visiting family over the holidays, grabbing a coffee with co-workers, going on a date, or having a birthday party,” she says. “A big part of why we’re all so eager to get back to normal is because we have felt how empty life is without these tiny moments of humanity.”