"In my opinion, 'social distancing’ is the wrong term"

For many weeks now, social interactions have been prohibited in many countries, which has affected many people. Roman Wittig of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has been looking into the effects of social contacts on the health of chimpanzees, and some of his findings apply equally to humans. In this interview, he explains why he prefers to speak in terms of "spatial” rather than “social” distancing, and how virtual (online) meetings can replace real meetings to a certain extent.

Since 2013, Roman Wittig is leader of the Tai Chimpanzee Project in the rainforest of Côte d'Ivoire, where Max Planck researchers have been studying social behaviour of chimpanzees for more than 40 years.

Mr Wittig, how important is regular social interaction for the health of chimpanzees and humans?

Wittig: Extremely important. We were able to show in several studies that chimpanzees with no close friends are more susceptible to diseases. And, after evaluating hundreds of studies, Julianna Holt-Lunstad concluded in 2010, that loneliness and a lack of friendships and social relationships have a more significant negative effect on health than classic risk factors such as obesity, smoking and alcohol. In fact, the positive effects of social interaction are even stronger than the negative effects of health risk factors. So, to exaggerate slightly, you could argue that, rather than giving up smoking, people should smoke with their friends. (laughs). But joking aside: what this study really shows is that, in terms of health and life expectancy, loneliness and social isolation are seriously underestimated risk factors equivalent to smoking.

But, that doesn’t bode well in these days of "social distancing” ...

First of all, I would like to clarify one thing, which is that, in my opinion, the term "social distancing" is simply wrong and should be replaced by "spatial distancing". In spatial terms, we must and should maintain a distance of two meters. But, in social terms, we should be particularly close to and supportive of one another at this moment: after all we’re in a permanent state of stress due to this pandemic. Our entire lifestyle has been turned upside down; suddenly everything is different. So, we should be closer than ever right now: what I’m advocating is "social closeness". Fortunately, we now have the technology to let us see our friends or family despite all of this.

But communicating with friends via video instead of actually meeting up with them is not the same, is it?

No; of course not. But you can compensate for a lot of things via the telephone. Take a 2010 study by Leslie Seltzer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for example. It was about some young girls who had to pass the so-called Trier test. The test subjects were asked to give a spontaneous lecture in front of a large crowd of people with no chance to prepare. I’m guessing that anyone who remembers their school days would be able to identify with that and what it means.

Stress!

Yes. Those girls suddenly found themselves in an extremely stressful situation. Their cortisol (a stress hormone) levels rose rapidly. In fact, the entire stress cascade, including elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate, kicked in. They were then divided into three groups; those in the first group were allowed to hug their mothers immediately afterwards; the second group was at least allowed to phone their mothers, whilst the final group were allowed to watch TV - in a room by themselves. Later, researchers measured the concentration of cortisol and oxytocin in all of them. Hours later, the cortisol level was still relatively high in those who had been sat gazing at the TV, whereas the levels of the "bond-enhancing" oxytocin had hardly increased at all. In humans, confirming or strengthening a friendship or family bond is often associated with a feeling of happiness.

So, watching television won’t make you happy: what about the other two groups?

Well the picture was completely the opposite in those cases. Those participants who were allowed to hug their mothers after their presentations experienced a rapid drop in cortisol levels, whilst massive amounts of oxytocin were released at the same time. Interestingly, almost the same thing happened to those participants who were only allowed to talk to their mothers on the phone. Seltzer's research group were only able to identify minor differences between the two groups, which means that contacting people by phone or Skype can make us as happy as meeting in real life.

One of your studies shows that, in the case of chimpanzees, oxytocin and sharing food are related. To what extent does this apply to us humans: does bulk-buying make people happy?

We did find that chimpanzees have elevated levels of oxytocin after sharing food with others. But you can't compare that with bulk-buying, because, for chimpanzees, sharing is about giving and thus, for example, making friends. Just as it is with us, it seems that the way to a chimpanzee’s heart is through the stomach. But bulk buying is about fear and uncertainty and only thinking of yourself.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Interview: Tobias Herrmann

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