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Covid-19 lockdown: a chance to reduce individualism?

Rompre les frontières de l’individualisme grâce au confinement
Published on
20 April 2020

While digital technology has been accused of many things, and in particular, of reducing social interactions, the current lockdown has highlighted its importance for social good.

Interview with Caroline Cuny, a doctor of cognitive psychology and a researcher and professor in the department of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management. In March 2020, Caroline wrote in collaboration with her GEM colleagues Marianela Fornerino and Mathieu Pinelli, an article on the subject of individualism and our current lockdown (published in The Conversation).

Current lockdown rules gave rise to the fear that people would withdraw from social life. But this is hardly the case for many of us. What have you observed since the beginning of the lockdown in France?

The first observation was the idea of there being a time of hyper-connection during the lockdown. Yet there is also a form of privation and frustration that is growing due to interactions based solely on social networks. This privation phenomena is all the more a factor that increases the need for social interactions.

As a result, solidarity efforts have been organized very quickly at both individual and collective levels. We observed that the lockdown threatens our need for social interactions and therefore we're all the more motivated to invent new ways of doing things and showing solidarity. Many simple acts illustrate this such as spontaneously offering to help at-risk neighbors or expressing support for healthcare professionals. Digital tools helped launch the call for mask manufacturing. And they offer many ideas in terms of activities for parents and children. And let's not forget the "virtual aperitifs". All of these actions are helping to generate a strong feeling of social presence.

You underline the importance of this "social presence". What's your explanation?

The idea of having an online social presence is the idea of creating intimate links with real people. Social presence consists of two factors: intimacy and immediateness. Sharing experiences via digital tools helps nourish this feeling of social presence. Various studies demonstrate that online social presence is associated with attraction, trust and pleasure. The ability to strengthen experiences through the use of video chats is an important aspect. Online classes, artistic displays, and video conferences are all examples of this. It's important to be able to interact "live". The real challenge of this lockdown is to feel connected with others. When this is the case, it increases levels of trust and satisfaction during exchanges. Finally, we lost the idea that digital tools enable us to share freely without advertisements connected to a Facebook page or Instagram account.

What is your opinion of this hyper-connection phenomena during the lockdown?

Our brain needs unconnected moments during this lockdown. Times of calm when the mind can wander and connect simply with what's around us and if possible, with nature. During the lockdown our brain is extremely curious because of our isolation. The risk is that we can exhaust ourselves. Negative emotions can overwhelm our mind. So it's all the more important for people to disconnect, especially for people who are in lockdown alone in their homes. It's essential to direct some attention towards natural, agreable sensations, whether they be physical or imagined. Parents must also force their children to disconnect from time to time.

Some people suggest that the coronavirus will change the world in a permanent manner and believe paradoxically that online communications will be reinforced: more physical distance but better quality of connection, or social presence. Will this crisis help change our limits in terms of individualism?

First of all, for a behavior to change, new habits must be practiced for a given amount of time, at least several weeks. The length of the lockdown will be sufficient to facilitate a change in behavior.

However, another essential criteria is the emotional intensity of the experience. People who were really shaken up by the lockdown will have a strong emotional attachment to the experience and its habits. For others, the lockdown can be a traumatic event.... The only thing that is sure is that this unprecedented event for our generations, in times of peace, will change our behaviors. How remains to be seen...

The lockdown will certainly not lead us to get rid of digital tools. But it should increase how we value the quality of human relationships face-to-face. Our feelings of social presence should be reinforced, even for digital relations. We should keep some aspects of this disruptive change in terms of individualism because we will have all shared in this remarkable experience. And all the more so because it's a global experience.

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