The loss of these interactions can make the day-to-day realities of work more frustrating, too, and can fray previously pleasant relationships. In a recent study, Andrew Guydish, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, looked at the effects of what he calls conversational reciprocity—how much each participant in a conversation talks while one is directing the other to complete a task. He found that in these situations—which often crop up between managers and employees at work—pairs of people tended to use unstructured time, if it were available, to balance the interaction. When that happened, both people reported feeling happier and more satisfied afterward.
Now Guydish worries that reciprocity has been largely lost. “Zoom calls usually have a very defined goal, and with that goal comes defined expectations in terms of who’s going to talk,” he told me. “Other people sit by, and they don’t get their opportunity to give their two cents. That kind of just leaves everybody with this overwhelming sense of almost isolation, in a way.”
This loss of reciprocity has extended to nondigital life. For example, friendly chats between customers and delivery guys, bartenders, or other service workers are rarer in a world of contactless delivery and curbside pickup. In normal times, those brief encounters tend to be good for tips and Yelp reviews, and they give otherwise rote interactions a more pleasant, human texture for both parties. Strip out the humanity, and there’s nothing but the transaction left.
The psychological effects of losing all but our closest ties can be profound. Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle “just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, told me. People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people. If variety is the spice of life, these relationships are the conduit for it.
The loss of these interactions may be one reason for the growth in internet conspiracy theories in the past year, and especially for the surge in groups like QAnon. But while online communities of all kinds can deliver some of the psychological benefits of meeting new people and making friends in the real world, the echo chamber of conspiracism is a further source of isolation. “There’s a lot of research showing that when you talk only to people who are like you, it actually makes your opinions shift even further away from other groups,” Sandstrom explained. “That’s how cults work. That’s how terrorist groups work.”
Most Americans were especially ill-prepared for the sudden loss of their weak ties. The importance of friendship overall, and especially friendships of weak or moderate strength, is generally downplayed in the country’s culture, while family and romantic partners are supposed to be the be-all and end-all.