The Importance of In-Person Interaction
“Touch instills trust. It contagiously spreads goodwill; it makes players better on behalf of each other.” - Dr. Dacher Keltner
Have you ever seen those people holding up signs on the street that say “free hugs,” just baiting you for a little in-person interaction?
Although you might refuse on account of your xenophobia or their grimy appearance, the brain actually loves a good hug. In-person interactions, such as shared laughter and hugging, have been shown to increase oxytocin levels (the “love hormone”) in the brain. It’s also no surprise that NBA teams with the most physical contact among players (slaps on the back, high-fives, fist bumps, etc), win the most. In order to understand why that is, we have to look at the human brain’s evolution.
Our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for 99 percent of human history in intensely social tribes of 25-150 people. They had constant physical contact with each other and formed deep interpersonal bonds that allowed them to trust each other, and each others’ children, with their lives. A hunter-gatherer strategy for obtaining nutrients required sharing of resources and division of labor, which created intricate social networks wherein mutual trust was essential.
Tribes needed each other because we are, compared to other species, slow and defenseless when alone. One fascinating strategy used by modern hunter-gatherers involves killing faster prey by chasing and tracking them around until they die from heat exhaustion. But still, even the best hunters during our evolution usually came back empty-handed. We relied on the success of the whole group, sharing meat among tribal members, in order to survive.
As a result, our brains became machines geared toward communication. The whites of our eyes, for example, likely evolved in order to allow us to interpret the intentions of others. We also developed “theory of mind” to analyze what others might be thinking about. Human psychological programming requires deep, meaningful social interaction. But such intimate interpersonal nuances as these are lost through modern tech-enabled forms of communication. Our living environments and interpersonal connections have changed radically in the information age.
Whether we admit it or not, we still need each other. Even those that often prefer to be alone require human contact. Walk down any high school hallway and you clearly see the results of millions of years of tribal evolution: we still love to gossip, once a valuable tool for figuring out who was trustworthy, and form social clicks, hierarchical groups that stick together.
Many people have trouble being alone with their own thoughts, so they ironically do what makes them more lonely: they foster superficial connections on social media or online communities, shutting off from face-to-face friendships. But while we may appear more connected on the surface, the type and quality of connection matter. Information may flow readily between individuals but often lacks the psychological sustenance of an in-person relationship. The result is that modern society can be deceptively isolating.
So instead of seeking social connection online, let’s give each other a few more hearty slaps on the back. That’s what being human’s all about, and it’s what your brain craves.
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 Morhenn, Vera B., et al. "Monetary sacrifice among strangers is mediated by endogenous oxytocin release after physical contact." Evolution and Human Behavior 29.6 (2008): 375-383.
 DeVore, Irven, and J. Tooby. "The reconstruction of hominid behavioral evolution through strategic modeling." The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models, edited by WG Kinzey (1987): 183-237.