The pandemic has certainly placed most of our friendships under strain. But take heart: a new study says this negative impact is likely to be short-lived.
A meta analysis published by Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, reports that the pandemic’s effect on friendships won’t be permanent — in fact, it’s likely not even going to last for too long. Social bonds such as those between family and friends are the cornerstone of human life, and maintaining their health should be one of our key concerns during such trying times.
A plague on friendships
The pandemic has upset our lives more than probably any other event in recent memory. It caused dramatic, wide-reaching changes to how we do our jobs, how we relax, how we socialize, and how we spend our money. We’re forced to face how fragile our societies actually are, and how easily a life can be snuffed out by fate.
This all led to a sharp rise in loneliness, anxiety, and civil disobedience. Dunbar wanted to see how our social networks fared under these conditions, and to estimate how they will evolve in the future to suit the current conditions. Towards this end, he analyzed available literature on this topic, looking in particular for ones dealing with unusual or completely novel situations.
Among the key findings, Dunbar notes that people actually have a smaller social network than we would assume, with the average figure being 150 people. How closely bonded we are to each individual is also variable, and hinges mostly on factors such as how much time was invested in the relationship, and how much trust we can place in the other person.
One important insight from this paper is that spending time apart from family doesn’t seem to make our bonds with them less powerful. Spending time apart from friends, however, does — some of the studies Dunbar cites show that it takes as little as three months without meeting in-person to weaken a bond of friendship. That’s not a heartening prospect, but Dunbar also found that these bonds of friendship can be restored quickly once people are able to socialize again.
So what is waiting for us at the end of the tunnel (apart from a cheap and effective vaccine)? Well, Dunbar believes that people will be rather awkward around each other for a short time after restrictions are lifted. However, we can definitely reconnect if we put in a little effort, as our relationships haven’t been severed, merely frayed.
Another side-effect of the pandemic is that as our old social ties may fall in the background, people are looking for and entering new social circles that are more available during these trying times. Some if not most of these will lead to new, long-lasting friendships, he adds.
The paper “Structure and function in human and primate social networks: implications for diffusion, network stability, and health” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences.