The coronavirus does not only threaten people's physical health, but also presents them with the great challenge of avoiding personal contacts and putting their personal life planning on hold, at least temporarily. Barbara Krahé, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Potsdam and expert in aggression research, explains why this is so difficult for people, what retreating into the privacy of their own homes means for many people and how they can cope with social isolation.
Ms. Krahé, we are currently going through an exceptional situation in Europe: We have been asked to self-isolate at home as far as possible and avoid contact with other people. Why do we – in light of the discussions about curfews – apparently have difficulties with this?
There are two main reasons behind this to be cited: On the one hand, for humans as social beings, psychological well-being depends crucially on being able to satisfy their need for closeness, exchange and support. This is only possible to a very limited extent at the moment and reduced to contacts through various media. The second reason is that people react very sensitively to restrictions of their personal freedom of choice, in that they add considerable value to options that are no longer available to them. That which we cannot have and are not allowed to do (any longer) seems to us to be particularly desirable, and we are doing everything we can to restore our freedom of choice. In the current case, this may explain, at least in part, why so many people do not comply with the contact restrictions.
How does living together change for couples, families or roommates when they live together in a small space for such extended periods?
This situation offers both opportunities and challenges. The opportunities arise from the fact that there is suddenly much more time available to spend together. In light of the busy everyday lives of many people, this opens up new opportunities to have conversations without time pressure, to play with the children or to do domestic chores that people had long been intending to do. On the other hand, however, this time is not freely chosen or "given", but forced upon them, which makes the situation stressful and increases the potential for conflict. In addition, it has been well established for quite some time that social constriction, defined by a subjectively experienced lack of opportunities to distance oneself spatially from others, favors aggressive behavior. In order to cope with this situation to some extent, people should become aware of these issues and try to keep the reason for their negative emotions in mind in order to be able to control them better.
What are the consequences of social and spatial isolation for the individual?
First of all, it should be noted that social isolation in times of medial interconnectedness is much less pronounced than it was in earlier times. With the help of the media, it is no problem to maintain social contacts, to participate in the lives of others and to report on one's own life. Entertainment options that are brought into the home via the media are almost limitless as well. Nevertheless, this is of course no substitute for real social interaction, especially if the situation lasts longer, and many people, especially the elderly, have no access to these resources. This can lead to feelings of loneliness which severely impair psychological well-being. It is important to bear in mind that loneliness is not defined by the number of actual social contacts, but by the discrepancy between the desired and existing social contacts. This discrepancy is particularly high for many people in the current situation.
How long can people live like this?
The problem in this case is not so much the amount of time we have to live under these restrictions and threats, but the unpredictability of when it will end. Our psychological well-being depends crucially on having a sense of predictability and control over the events in our lives. Loss of control, especially the feeling that negative consequences will arise completely regardless of our efforts to avoid them, leads to helplessness. This helplessness is reflected in negative feelings such as sadness and despair and in a low degree of motivation and efforts to try and change things for the better. People feel they are at the mercy of developments that they cannot prevent and do not know how long they will have to endure them. This is something they can barely cope with.
Do you have any tips on how to organize time at home with roommates so that negative effects could possibly be mitigated? For example, what do you think about the intensive use of (social) media?
As I mentioned earlier, social media can cushion the negative living conditions in this crisis to a considerable extent, and in this respect we are clearly in a better position than, for example, people 100 years ago at the time of the "Spanish flu". However, contacts via telephone or social media cannot replace direct social contact, of course. Everyone should think about family, friends or neighbors which could potentially be at high risk of loneliness and signal to these people that you are thinking of them and would like to support them in a concrete way. We are already seeing examples of such forms of support in many places.
Some may be unconcerned because they expect to only get symptoms of a regular cold when they get sick. How are people doing, though, who are particularly at risk because of age or illness? What does the fear of this illness mean for these people?
For these people the situation is particularly threatening, of course, because they are both massively endangered by the illness itself and, due to their life situation, have fewer opportunities to keep the social circumstances bearable, especially if they are single. How people deal with this double threat also depends on their personality and cannot be answered in general terms. It is obvious that we all have to convey to the people in this group that we have understood their particular risk and want to act in solidarity to protect them.
No one can currently say how long the virus will continue to preoccupy us in Europe and around the world. At the moment some people are talking about months or even years. How can people cope with this enormous uncertainty in terms of their personal life planning?
It is difficult for all of us, but we have no choice, because life cannot simply be put on hold. It helps that this crisis affects everyone, unlike many other negative life events, and that you can therefore attribute them to external circumstances for which you are not responsible. The effects on people’s own life plans are massive, especially for those who have to face the possibility of having their livelihood ruined at the end of the crisis, of not having had the chance to take important examinations or of not being able to realize plans that have been prepared for a long time. This means that, already, it is not only a matter of coping with the current uncertainty and restrictions, but also of dealing with the fears of how life will continue after the end of the pandemic.