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Humans are social creatures. Our cerebral cortex, an area of the brain linked to social complexity, is three times larger than that of chimpanzees, the next closest primate. Research has found that humans who lack social well-being face risks to their health, akin to smoking or lack of exercise. Research has also found that humans who are socially isolated feel less happy and die younger than those who are social.

Yet we now find ourselves socially isolated for a good cause. We are being asked to stay away from one another, cancel concerts, close restaurants, and delay weddings in the name of reducing death and suffering. We’ve been asked to stay at least six feet apart to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus amid a global pandemic.

This kind of isolation runs against human nature, said Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and a Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow.

But just because we have to keep physical distance from one another doesn’t mean we have to stop being social, Epley said. There are ways to be prosocial, even from afar. In an online talk in early April, titled “The Surprising Power of Social Connection,” Epley gave advice for how and why people should fight to stay socially connected amid the pandemic.

Assume Others Want to Hear from You

Epley’s research is supported by Chicago Booth’s Center for Decision Research, where Epley serves as faculty director. In their experiments, Epley and his coresearchers ask people to be social for science. Some studies are undertaken on trains, some in parks, some privately among close friends. But Epley said that they have all pointed to a common misconception: people underestimate the positive effect that their reaching out will have on others.

“People’s expectations were simply wrong,” Epley said.

His research finds that instead of feeling awkward like people anticipate, both sides of a social interaction actually feel better after it—each feels happier, more connected. This effect has been replicated in multiple studies and holds true whether the people interacting are strangers, acquaintances, or loved ones, according to Epley’s research.

The Takeaway: Assume that reaching out to another person, even someone you don’t know well, will have a positive effect on both of you, especially when you’re physically apart.

“If we underestimate the positive effects [that instances of reaching out] can have on others, we might not do them,” Epley said. “That’s important now, when social connection isn’t as easy or automatic as it used to be.”

Instead of Texting, Make Voice or Video Calls

During the webinar, Epley shared that in a yet-to-be-published study, he and his fellow researchers asked participants to reconnect with an old friend, randomly assigning them to reach out either through an email or a phone call.

First, the participants reported their expectations: most believed that an email would feel like less of a bond, but it’d also be less awkward than a phone call. The majority said that they’d prefer to skip the awkwardness of calling and simply send an email.

The researchers find that in spite of expectations, participants felt vastly more socially connected over a phone call. The study also finds no difference in the awkwardness participants felt when emailing or making calls.

The Takeaway: Have phone or video conversations—with friends, family, acquaintances, people with whom you want to reconnect—so that you can truly hear what the other person has to say. There’s more emotional nuance to spoken conversation than written communication, and Epley said this nuance will lead to a greater feeling of connection.

Ask Deep Questions

In a study performed at Chicago’s Millennium Park, Epley’s team asked people to generate two sets of questions for strangers, he told the virtual audience. One set was small-talk questions, the other set was deeper, more personal questions.

Participants believed that asking deep questions would feel more awkward than asking small-talk questions. But when researchers randomly assigned participants to ask either the small-talk or deep questions, they found no difference in awkwardness.

Instead of causing them to feel awkward, deep questions made people feel happier and more connected to others.

The Takeaway: Ask deep questions, even if the thought of asking them makes you feel funny. The funny feeling will give way to happiness and connection with another person.

Deep questions are more personal. Examples Epley gave include:

  • What are you most grateful for in life?
  • If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, or your future, what would you want to know?
  • Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?

Start Today: Two Prosocial Acts You Can Do Right Now

Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social alienation. Epley said that people can be prosocial even amid the pandemic, and it will help them feel connected to others.

He gave two habits that people can start working on today:

  • Focus on gratitude: Someone in your life has done something meaningful for you and you’ve likely never expressed what it meant to you. Write that person a letter, text, or email—or better yet, pick up the phone and call!—to say how grateful you are. Studies find that this will make both people feel great, Epley said.
  • Share kind thoughts: Every time you have a kind thought about someone, share it with that person. Give compliments and share nice memories. Epley said that this is another prosocial act that will make you both feel happier.

“Take these little steps, get started, and you’ll see how it feels,” Epley said, comparing prosociality to starting an exercise regime. “More often than not, once you get started, you’ll want to continue.”

Watch Professor Epley’s full presentation online at the Center for Decision Research website.