The COVID States Project has been probing American behavior (and attitudes) during the pandemic since March 2020. In 12 survey waves, an array of researchers — from Northeastern, Northwestern, Harvard and Rutgers — have polled some 185,200 Americans about subjects ranging from social distancing practices to attitudes toward vaccines and judgments about state politicians’ leadership. The consortium’s 55th report, issued this month, looked at social isolation — something many of us have experienced over the past year and a half. The focus was on the most isolated people: those who said they had one or zero people to turn to for help in various kinds of crises. One of the more striking findings, as David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern, explained in a recent interview, is that even as vaccines have arrived and society has opened up, some measures of loneliness have not abated. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In general, the data shows isolation rising after that first burst of solidarity and peaking in September 2020. Then things generally get better after that. But the measure of one specific kind of isolation — emotional isolation, the question of whether you have someone to talk to about personal problems — just gets worse and worse.
A. Yes, the high point of social isolation for the emotional measure is in the survey from June that we just completed.
Q: What could possibly explain why people would feel lonelier over the past couple of months than they did a year ago?
A: Relationships are something that you have to cultivate. And so maybe there was someone that you would have felt comfortable calling up or reaching out to at the beginning of the pandemic, but then you haven’t spoken to them in six months — and do you feel as comfortable reaching out? The negative spin I can give these numbers is that those relationships may have decayed somewhat, because you need that experience of casually getting together. You don’t get together on Zoom just to chat and gossip for 20 minutes. But of course, in real life, we do that all the time. You bump into someone at work, you bump into someone in the street, and you get together with friends for dinner. Those serendipitous collisions sustain our connections, and without them relationships may have decayed, and the “reopening” we’ve experienced the last few months doesn’t immediately bring our relationships back to where they were. Indeed, the reopening may make more apparent what we’ve lost.
But I’ll also put a more positive spin on it. It could be that people are revisiting some relationships. We’ve recently seen increases in people quitting their jobs. You don’t want to quit a job at the height of a pandemic, but now maybe you think there are opportunities out there. The trends we’re seeing could involve people purposefully rewiring their relationships — which has a short-term cost. Maybe some of your old relationships have decayed, but you’re building new ones. And yet those new friends aren’t “old friends” you can confide in yet. Maybe, on the positive side, that’s the pivot that a lot of people are making.