“Are People Naturally Social?”
Modern society has become increasingly individualistic, which leads to people feeling isolated from others (i.e., social disconnectedness) and the natural world (i.e., nature disconnectedness). Factors such as technology and digital media usage also shift people towards individualism. Yet, research suggests that people have evolved to be naturally social. Throughout history, we have lived in groups and communities for safety, support, and the fulfilment of basic needs. So, as Aristotle once thought, “Are people naturally social?”
“Man is by nature a social animal; an animal who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something in nature that precedes the individual. Anyone who cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”—Aristotle, Politics.
Social Interactions Are Essential for Health and Well-Being
The global pandemic has led to a significant increase in social media and technology usage. People adjusted to social distancing measures and remote work or education to avoid spreading the virus. With many people spending more time at home and physically isolated from others, technology provided a way for people to stay connected and informed.
While social networking sites can create a sense of connection and allow people to maintain relationships across distances, they can also lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression if used in excess. The same can be true if people compare themselves unfavourably to others’ online posts.
The adverse effects of social isolation are certainly cause for concern. So, it’s important to remember that people are naturally social. In-person interactions are essential components of health and well-being. Plus, humans have evolved to rely on social relationships to survive and thrive.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication
Before the global pandemic, most day-to-day interactions were synchronous, meaning they happened in real-time.
For example, when you talk to a friend, family member, or coworker in person or over the phone, you are engaged in a synchronous interaction. Similarly, people communicate with others synchronously when they attend a meeting or class in real time.
In contrast, asynchronous interactions involve communication that occurs at different times. Examples of asynchronous communication include emails, social media posts, and text messages.
Moreover, understanding the true meaning behind people’s exchanges is harder in asynchronous communication than in synchronous ones. Confusion can arise because when we communicate asynchronously, there is a delay between sending and receiving a message, and this lag can lead to misunderstandings between the speakers.
In synchronous communication, on the other hand, there is immediate feedback to guide people’s interactions and the ability to clarify any misunderstandings in real time.
Most synchronous communication uses physical cues such as body language, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and eye contact. Plus, the space between us and others.
Physical cues are essential for synchronous communication because they help to convey nonverbal information that can enhance and clarify the message.
But without nonverbal information, people can struggle to notice the intentions of others. And also the extent to which they’re engaged in the conversation. Thus, we are sometimes none the wiser about other people’s emotional states.
Understanding people’s intentions and emotional states is essential for effective social interactions. Interpreting this non-verbal information can lead to more fulfilling connections with others.
Naturally, Social People See the World Through a Social Lens
“Do humans interpret the intentions of others naturally?” Yes indeed. Research shows that humans naturally perceive and interpret the world through social lenses. This ability means that we tend to see things in terms of how they relate to other people.
For example, in 1944, Heider and Simmel ran a study that showed humans’ innate tendency to attribute social meaning to non-social stimuli.
In this experiment, participants watched an animated film that depicted simple geometric shapes moving in social-like ways (i.e., apparent behaviour). Although the figures had no human characteristics or intentions, observers described the shapes’ movements as if they were engaging in social behaviour.
Thus, people can attribute human characteristics to non-social stimuli. This cognitive skill is called anthropomorphism. It refers to people’s tendency to ascribe human-like qualities, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities (e.g., animals, objects, or even natural events).
Interpreting People’s Intentions Involves Social Cognition
Social cognition includes perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and decision-making, which can influence anthropomorphic thinking. It can also affect how we process, interpret, and respond to real-world information.
When we anthropomorphise, we use social cognition skills to understand and interpret others’ behaviour. And also the characteristics of non-human entities in ways familiar to us as humans.
Brain imaging studies show that viewing Heider-Simmel animations can evoke activity in brain regions linked with social cognition.
For example, a study by Osaka and colleagues (2012) using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) examined the neural mechanisms underlying the attribution of agency and intentionality to animated shapes in Heider-Simmel animations.
The results suggest that when the shapes exhibit biased movements towards each other, the brain regions associated with social cognition, such as the inferior frontal gyrus and the medial prefrontal cortex, are active.
Another MRI study by Castelli and colleagues (2000) found that attributing intentions to shapes moving in social-like ways evokes activity in a social brain network involved in another cognitive skill called ‘Theory of Mind’—our ability to understand other people’s (and our own) mental states, intentions, and emotions to predict behaviour.
Thus, brain imaging studies of social cognition provide valuable insights into the neural mechanisms underlying people’s social behaviour.
Interpreting People’s Actions Involves Social Cognition
The ability to emphasise with people can also help us to interpret and understand the actions of humans and animals (i.e., biological motion), even when the movements appear simplified or abstract, for instance, in point-light displays.
Research shows that humans are sensitive to the biological motion of others and that this sensitivity begins early in life. For example, infants as young as one day old preferentially attend to and track actions from biological organisms, such as the movements of faces and bodies.
Moreover, people from different cultures can judge people’s intentions from motion cues. This ability suggests that inferring human characteristics from motion is a universal aspect of behaviour.
Thus, humans are sensitive to biological motion. And we have evolved specialized neural mechanisms for processing and interpreting the movements of humans and non-human entities.
Moreover, the ability to perceive and interpret the movements of biological organisms plays an essential role in our social interactions and relationships. It allows us to communicate, understand, and connect with others in our environment.
And connecting with people can have a positive effect on well-being and happiness.
Being Social Naturally Makes People Happy
Humans are social creatures. We have evolved to thrive in social environments that provide opportunities for connection, support, and cooperation with others.
Social interaction can provide a range of benefits for our emotional and mental health. For example, spending time with friends and loved ones can help us feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, which can buffer feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Social support from others can also provide emotional comfort. It can help us cope with stress and promote resilience in adversity.
Moreover, engaging in social activities can provide opportunities for positive experiences and personal growth. Social interactions can also provide opportunities for learning, exploration, and self-expression. And lead to increased self-esteem, confidence, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
Our social nature is an essential part of our biology and psychology, and it plays a fundamental role in our lives and well-being.
The images below show the joy and happiness people feel when socialising with others. Thus, empirical evidence for people being naturally social. Moreover, looking at photos can evoke positive emotions and help us relive happy memories.
Just take a few moments to reflect on the memories and emotions captured in the photos you take to appreciate their positive effects.
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