The Real Reason We Need Each Other

Our Very Identities Rely on Interpersonal Interaction

 

 

The rush to open the economy up again, even amid rising Covid-19 contagion, has been fueled, in part, by cries that humans are social animals and they need to be with each other. We assume that as a social species — as most primates are — that time around others is a more “natural” state than being alone, and therefore essential. But no one seems to know exactly why humans have this driving need to be in each other’s company.


The idea that just being part of a crowd is necessary for wellbeing doesn’t cut it. Lots of animals hang out in groups — picture herds of wildebeests or schools of fish — but their innate style of grouping evolved simply as an expedient strategy for protection. These species interact with each other a bit, but really, the idea is to be in the center of that herd or school to reduce one’s risk of being eaten by a hungry predator. Human sociality sometimes has that same herd effect, but most of the time when people gather our sociality is very interpersonal and interactive typified by one-on-one exchanges. For some, it’s a mating game; the urge to hit a bar or go to a gym can be more about hooking up than finding someone to talk to. For others it’s distraction or entertainment; eating out with friends is now a national pastime. Human inter-personal interaction is also often about making alliances and fostering cooperation; we are socially intelligent enough to manipulate others to our advantage. But there is another reason humans have a driving urge to be with other people — to find ourselves. Only by bouncing ourselves off others do we realize who we are, and without that constant reflection, humans are bereft because we don’t know our value or our place in life. We need others for clarification, confirmation, and reinforcement of our very identities.


I know this because I live alone. Ever since my daughter left for college four years ago, I have led a pretty solitary life. Not a sad lonely solitary life — there’s always something to do and even while staying inside all day every day because of the virus I am busy with this and that. In that sense, my current life is not so different from the one I had 6 months ago. As a writer, I am home alone all day anyway and at the end of the workday, I usually hang out with only myself and watch TV and knit. Sure, I have friends and talk with them by phone or zoom every few days. And there’s also email. But most of the time, I sail through life solo, making my own decisions and experiencing life all by myself.


I don’t mind all this aloneness, even in the quarantined extreme version, but I often don’t feel like myself at some level. I sometimes say out loud, “I’d just like someone to talk to at 5 p.m.,” as if this were the only thing missing by living alone, but lately I have come to realize that my moments of confusion about who I am are rooted in the fact that there is no one to laugh at my jokes, tell me I am right or wrong when some conflict happens, judge whether as idea of mine is brilliant or stupid, and there no one looking at me but a five-year-old cat. That last might seem superficial, but it’s weird to get a haircut and have no one notice or get new cloths and wear them with no comments from anyone. At this point, I have no idea if I look good or bad, if I am funny or not, or if I have a brain in my head.


I have come to realize that social interaction is not just about being with others, it’s also about confirming who we are. Humans provide each other with reactions and those reactions help form how we think of the world and ourselves. Of course, that necessary entwinement also has a dark side. Negative comments from others can be painful and destructive to the human ego, but those unsetting times are outweighed by the positive reinforcement that we exist because others see us.


Social interaction is a major mechanism through which we find our singular place on the plant. And by providing that service to each other, we humans create a network of interaction and attachment that is the safety net of human identity. We become ourselves as we align with various groups, ingest various belief systems to which others adhere, and have our behaviors judged by others. This process of socialization is apparently evolutionarily important; judging, reassuring, and mirroring are so common and so universal for all peoples that these actions be selectively adaptive.

Of course, living in a culture that glorifies the individual is counter to this entwinement of our identities. A culture that expects everyone to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” not depend financially on anyone, and encourages each of us to live “independently,” might not be the best blueprint for a happy life for primates so dependent of the gaze of others. The current epidemic of loneness in Western culture that has critically affected the mental and physical health of those on their own underscores the misfit between those constructed Western values and our evolutionary heritage.


You’d think that with such big brains humans could easily manage to construct themselves, but clearly, we need a little help from our friends to get there.

 

 

 

Meredith Small

Meredith F. Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and the author of Our Babies, Ourselves; What's Love Got to Do with It?; and Female Choices. She has written frequently for Natural History Magazine, Discover, Scientific American, and was a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. She lives in Philadelphia.

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