In March of 2020, U.N. Chief, General António Guterres, declared the COVID-19 pandemic our “greatest test” since World War II. At the time almost half the world was living under some form of restriction due to the virus, and attention turned to “big tech” to bridge the growing social distance between people. Almost overnight, many of us found ourselves living under a “new normal” involving as little face-to-face interaction as possible, and if we wanted to stay connected at all, we had to rely on device-mediated communication. Usage of video-based services allowing people to work, learn, and socialize from home soared as winter gave way to spring.1 It was not long, though, before reports of “Zoom fatigue”2 and “touch starvation”3 began to circulate. Indeed, for many of us, it was becoming clear that device-mediated interaction is not an honest substitute for the real thing.
As it turns out, past research, including biosocial research (as we’ll see below), wouldn’t have given us much reason to expect otherwise. Video-mediated communication is far more complex than most people realize, and perceptions of its effectiveness are dependent on a host of factors. Modern platforms tend to focus on interactants’ faces, which should facilitate the communication of personal messages;4 however, video chat doesn’t seem to live up to the richness of face-to-face interaction. In comparison to face-to-face interaction, video-mediated interaction generates less positive feelings5 and less cohesion among users.6 At the same time, while device-mediated communication can be appreciated for its convenience and easiness,7 most adults still seem to prefer face-to-face communication, all else being equal.8 This may help explain why, despite the widespread availability and use of video chat and conferencing technology during COVID-19, people became increasingly desperate for face-to-face contact as cabin fever from social distancing set in. It wasn’t long before we began to miss “real” happy hours,9 and there is no shortage of anecdotal accounts of people bemoaning their reliance on video-mediated communication.
But the evidence is more than anecdotal. According to a recent Pew poll, almost two-thirds of Americans say that while a disruption to their internet or cellphone service during COVID-19 would create a “very or moderately big problem” for them, mediated interaction is no replacement for in-person contact.10 This fact, combined with relatively high rates of social-distancing compliance during the pandemic,11 created a perfect social storm: many people were sequestered at home with a suboptimal means of interacting with others. Given the long-established and undisputed myriad benefits of social support for mental and physical health,12 it is perhaps no surprise that a recent analysis predicts as many as 75,000 hidden “deaths of despair” from the pandemic, with insufficiency of the virtual community cited as one of the main reasons for the problem and finding innovative ways to get people connected as a promising solution.13. This raises some important questions for researchers. First, if video chat and conferencing are not sufficient proxies for face-to-face interaction, why is that? And second, as we stare down the barrel of a future where we know we have not seen the last of worldwide lockdowns, what are some potential innovative solutions to the interaction and communication difficulties that come with such massive disruptions to life as we know it?
Why is Video Chat Insufficient?
The brain modules supporting human social communication and interaction are the product of millions of years of evolutionary forces acting on Homo sapiens and their ancestors in face-to-face contexts. Looking at the big picture, we simply aren’t used to anything but face-to-face interaction. Over the last 20 years, though—less than a blink in evolutionary time—we have gone from none of us having smartphones and relatively few of us being online to many of us having smartphones and almost all of us being online. And while it may be that the average adult still prefers face-to-face communication over device-mediated forms, there is some evidence that teenagers are beginning to show a preference for the latter.14 This is not an insignificant fact, as it is naïve to think that interacting increasingly through screens won’t have any consequences for social organization, civility, etc., and there are good reasons for us to be concerned about the trend.15 As Sam Harris put it recently, “[W]ith social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good.”16
Others have anticipated the specific questions we are probing and emphasize the important role that social and biosocial perspectives can play in answering them.17 As we have argued, a “neuro-interactionist” approach rooted in the sociological perspective of symbolic interactionism (SI) is a promising organizing framework for advancing research on the social impacts of mediated interaction.18 The key points of our argument are these. First, humans have evolved a unique ability to step outside themselves, take themselves as objects, and imagine in advance how other people might respond to different courses of action. This ability, referred to as “role-taking,” is a fundamental organizing force in group life.19 (Just imagine how chaotic life would be if we could not do this.) The concept of role-taking is nuanced (beyond facial expressions) and is based on shared meanings, shared expectations, and the context of interaction.20,21 Role-taking in SI overlaps with “theory of mind” in neuroscience, which refers to our ability to infer and reason about others’ states of mind. We see role-taking as a specific function of the capacity for theory of mind. Second, past research gives us reason to believe that the ability to engage in theory of mind reasoning, generally, and role-taking, more specifically, is supported by the human “mirror neuron” system (hMNS). Mirror neurons are present in several brain regions, and they become active both when a person engages in a specific behavior as well as when they see someone else engage in the same behavior.22 Third, and finally, insofar as theory of mind and role-taking are acquired capacities tied to healthy development of the hMNS, we had better hope that people’s increasing use of electronic devices for learning and interaction, especially at younger and younger ages,23 doesn’t interfere with this developmental process or contribute to its unraveling. Otherwise, the consequences for human social organization may prove to be perilous. (One has to wonder the extent to which increasing political and societal polarization and the ‘global crisis of democracy’24 might be taken as a case in point.)
While we know surprisingly little about the actual consequences of shifting interaction into device-mediated spaces, what we do know should give us pause. Based on their review of research on information processing and learning, Dickerson and her colleagues conclude that the neural architecture underlying the hMNS “operates less efficiently and effectively in the presence of temporal, spatial, and social disruptions inherent to virtual communication and screen media platforms.”25 In light of this point, and given the presumed connection between mirror neuron functioning and our social-organizing capacities, a widespread failure to “exercise” and/or develop the hMNS resulting from an abrupt, global shift to device-mediated communication is a problem that deserves more research and practical attention. Among the socially relevant lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, one is that many people quickly grew weary of interacting through screens. We hope to have shed at least some light on why that observation should appear fairly obvious in hindsight. Assuming our specific concerns about device-mediated interaction are confirmed by future studies, we’ll be poised to tackle the practical challenges of it in the advancing digital age.
What Can We Do?
If it does turn out that device-mediated interaction compromises role-taking and theory of mind by negatively impacting the operation and/or development (in children) of the hMNS, what could we do about this? The question would be a relatively urgent one because odds are that device-mediated interaction, in some form or another, will become more, not less, prevalent in the future. If we can find ways to make it more like the real thing—if we can develop technologies that work with our mirror neurons and social-organizing capacities rather than against them—we’ll surely pave the way for a more satisfying, more fulfilling, more secure, and more peaceful future for human communities, especially during times of crisis when we might once again be called upon to stay home for a lengthy period of time.
We haven’t the space here to explore this question in detail, but suffice it to say, we are confident that if the answer lies anywhere, it’s most likely in the advancement and application of 3D virtual reality (VR) technology, especially forms that incorporate haptic (touch) feedback and other contextual meanings part and parcel of more nuanced interaction. According to Dickerson and her colleagues, tactile VR is a medium that uniquely allows for the “sensorimotor binding” of voluntary actions and causally linked sensory consequences, which is supported by the hMNS and is critical for effective social communication.26 Challenges to sensorimotor binding and hMNS functioning in conventional video chat may explain why most of us “feel” that this method of communicating is not an equal substitute for face-to-face interaction. It remains to be seen whether an innovative, hyper-immersive VR platform for getting people together can overcome these barriers and help us flourish in the digital age.
As we hope to have convinced readers, initiating a program of research that makes sense of what we know about the evolved brain and digital/virtual communication within a neuro-interactionist paradigm is a worthy next step. Dissatisfaction with the “digital response” to COVID-19 in the forms of “Zoom fatigue” and “touch starvation” says to us that there is no time like the present to push this agenda forward.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
 Ella Koeze and Nathaniel Popper, “The Virus Changed the Way We Internet,” New York Times, April 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/07/technology/coronavirus-internet-use.html
 Julia Sklar, “‘Zoom fatigue’ is Taxing the Brain. Here’s Why That Happens,” National Geographic, April 24, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/
 Shanley Pierce, “Touch Starvation is a Consequence of COVID-19’s Physical Distancing,” TMC News, May 15, 2020, https://www.tmc.edu/news/2020/05/touch-starvation
 Mark Knapp and Judith Hall, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, 7th ed., (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010), 471.
 John Storck and Lee Sproull, “Through a Glass Darkly: What Do People Learn in Videoconferences,” Human Communication Research, 22, no. 2 (1995): 197-219.
 Will Kalkhoff et al., “Society in Peril? How Distance Media Communication Could Be Undermining Symbolic Interaction,” in Identity and Symbolic Interaction: Deepening Foundations, Building Bridges (New York: Springer, 2020), 317-338.
 Svenja Arabella Hallerberg, “Face-to-Face is the Most Effective Meida for Communication Over Social Media,” Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 186, 15th International Symposium on Management, 1-5.
 Kim Hart, “Poll: Americans Crave Human Interaction Despite Pervasive Tech,” Axios, November 20, 2018, https://www.axios.com/poll-americans-crave-human-interaction-despite-pervasive-tech-use-011c2843-a365-4b89-b8bb-6221394a9522.html.
 Ashley Fetters, “We Need to Stop Trying to Replicate the Life We Had,” The Atlantic, April 10, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/04/why-your-zoom-happy-hour-unsatisfying/609823/
 Monica Anderson and Emily A. Vogels, “Americans Turn to Technology During COVID-19 Outbreak, Say an Outage Would Be a Problem,” Pew Research Center, March 31, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/31/americans-turn-to-technology-during-covid-19-outbreak-say-an-outage-would-be-a-problem/
 Ashley Kirzinger et al., “KFF Health Tracking Poll – Early April 2020: The Impact Of Coronavirus On Life In America,” Kaiser Family Foundation, April 2, 2020, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/report/kff-health-tracking-poll-early-april-2020/
 James S. House et al., “Structures and Processes of Social Support,” Annual Review of Sociology, 14, (1988): 293-318.
 Steve Petterson et al. “Projected Deaths of Despair During the Coronavirus Recession,” Well Being Trust, May 8, 2020, WellBeingTrust.org.
Victoria Rideout and Michael B. Robb, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences, (San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media, 2018), 25.
 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
 Sam Harris, “Can We Pull Back from the Brink,” Making Sense, podcast transcript, June 18, 2020, https://samharris.org/can-pull-back-brink/.
 Emily Falk, “Can Neuroscience Advance Our Understanding of Core Questions in Communication Studies? An Overview of Communication Neuroscience,” in Communication @ the Center (New York: Hampton Press, 2012), 85-86.
 Kalkhoff et al., Society in Peril?
 George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), 160-161.
 Richard T. Serpe and Sheldon Stryker, “The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective and Identity Theory,” in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research (London: Springer, 2011).
 Ralph H. Turner, “The Role and the Person,” American Journal of Sociology, 84, no. 1 (1978): 1-23.
 Rosemary Hopcroft, “Neurosociology and Theory of Mind (TOM),” in Handbook of Neurosociology, (New York: Springer, 2013), 235-236.
 Jenny S. Radesky et al., “Young Children’s Use of Smartphones and Tablets,” Pediatrics, 146, no. 1 (2020).
 Jennifer McCoy et al., “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities,” American Behavioral Scientist, 62, no. 1 (2018): 16-42.
 Kelly Dickerson et al., “The Role of the Human Mirror Neuron System in Supporting Communication in a Digital World,” Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 698 (2017).
 Ibid, 4.