Contrary to how it may sometimes feel, we humans need one another. We all certainly have our days when someone gets unruly with their cart at the grocery store, sending us into a weekend of solitude at home because the general public is just too much to handle. That’s just me? Insert your own scenario that leads you to quiet homebound hibernation, and you’ll understand what I mean.
At the same time, there are days when I spend my entire workday alone at my computer, working on an independent task that doesn’t involve much social interaction. It’s on those days that I go home and I need to interact with another person as much as I need to eat dinner.
In a society where I can order light bulbs online, make a restaurant reservation in an app, or hire a dog-walker without ever meeting face-to-face, it’s easy to have more of those isolating days where you don’t actually interact with anyone. But does it matter? Do we actually need that interaction? And how do these human social needs fit into the realm of online learning?
As it turns out, yes, social connections and isolation do matter quite a bit. There’s a reason why other people are important to us, and science has some interesting ideas behind that reason.
Let’s start with one of the most familiar ideas. Abraham Maslow included social needs in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” We usually see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs displayed as a pyramid, on which social needs lie higher than physiological or security needs. This isn’t to say social needs are more important than the other two, but his point was that one cannot satisfy critical social needs without first meeting physiological and security needs. As a result, one cannot meet the needs related to ego or self-actualization without meeting social needs.
While Maslow’s theories have received a lot of attention and criticism over the years, there has been no shortage of scientists studying the effects of social connectedness and our well-being.
In a 1988 report in Science, James House, Karl Landis, and Debra Umberson reviewed a number of studies looking at a population’s social integration relative to their health. The report, appropriately titled, “Social Relationships and Health,” noted that, “Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health— rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity.”
In his 2013 book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, psychologist Matthew Lieberman goes in-depth to argue that perhaps our connections with one another are even more important than food and water, and that is how humans evolved to become the species we are today: