Psychology of Social Connection

Entries from February 2022

Perspective Taking: We Do It All the Time… or Do We?

February 19th, 2022 · 24 Comments

[Patrick]

The football team at Harvard comes from different parts of the country and all walks of life. When we arrived on campus freshman year, none of us really had anything in common outside of football. Due to the fact that football is a fall sport, we arrived on campus just a few weeks before the season was set to start, and nobody really knew each other. This posed a challenge for us because the sport requires a tremendous amount of teamwork to win games. One of the ways we were able to engineer connections with each other before the season started was mind perception. The paper “From Mind Perception to Mental Connection” (Wheatley et al., 2012) discusses how shared past experiences allow people to form a social bond almost instantaneously. In the case of our team this shared experience was playing football and lifting weights since we were all in middle school. During our down time we would all talk about our experiences playing football in various parts of the country and this really allowed all of us to become closer. These shared experiences really helped us to understand how others were feeling and what others were thinking. This allowed us to work our hardest every day even if we had to wake up at 4:30 for practice or practice in the extreme heat or cold because we all understood it was a grind for everyone and we were all in pursuit of a common goal, an Ivy League Championship. It also allowed us to have a better connection on the field, helping us to execute plays quicker and more effectively.

Wheatley goes on to discuss how synchrony can strengthen these bonds, and additional research done by Wiltermuth and Heath (2009) supports these claims. The results showed that participants who perform synchronous physical activity are more apt to perform cooperatively toward their common goal (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009, as cited in Wheatley et al., 2012). The idea of performing as a cohesive group is extremely important in football, especially across the offensive line. On the offensive line all five players perform the same exact action as each other on every play, trying to work together to block a path through the defense for the running back. If one person messes up and is not doing the same thing as everyone else then the play is completely ruined. At the beginning of the season nobody on the offensive line really had a great mental connection and a lot of plays got messed up. But as we continued to practice and work together, we were able to perform our jobs with less instruction and communication due to the fact that we knew what the others were thinking as the play developed.

Our team had an overwhelming positive experience with mind perception as we were able to come together and form virtually instantaneous bonds through these shared experiences and synchronous physical activity. The more we shared with each other and the more time we spent together, the more we were able to understand and predict how others on the team felt and how they would act. Our season started off very well, but we lost a few close games which eliminated us from contention in the Ivy League Championship. However, we still managed to blow out Yale at Fenway in front of our home crowd. As our time at Harvard progressed our team became significantly closer and our record since freshman year got progressively better.

[Do Yeon]

As mentioned above, mind perception can bring people together. However, there are also limits to mind perception, one of which is that it can perpetuate the distance people feel towards another. This “distance” can be particularly harmful when thinking about the treatment and experiences of groups that deviate from societal norms and expectations. For example, those who identify as sexual minorities face substantial discrimination and stigma from multiple levels, including through interpersonal interactions (e.g., family, co-workers, classmates) and on a structural level (e.g., social norms, laws and policies).

When Castro and Zautra (2016) discuss the idea of resilience in relation to mentalization, they establish that having strong social connections are a necessary key to resilience and that a way to forge these meaningful social connections is through mentalization. This was supported by researchers who conducted a diary study, finding that people who had an increased sense of social connectedness were able to recover from “negative emotional experiences” faster than those with comparatively less social connectedness (Ong & Allaire, 2005, as cited in Castro & Zautra, 2016). However, resilience, as defined here, operates under the assertion that it is not achievable without close social connections. This definition of resilience would render people who belong to stigmatized groups (e.g., a sexual minority group) and may not live in a tolerating community, thus lack a strong support system, unable to be “resilient.” In addition, this idea of resilience overemphasizes the point that with meaningful close relationships, one can overcome/avoid being adversely impacted by negative experiences. Within the context of stigmatized groups, arguing that resilience results from simply having and maintaining positive close relationships places the burden of coping with negative experiences onto those experiencing them, instead of to the people and/or institutions that are perpetuating the stigma they face.

Given this, I began to wonder about the ways that mentalization could be used/studied that could flip this burden over to the sources/perpetrators of stigma and discrimination instead. Thus, I found the ways that mentalizing could be used to work towards this to be particularly engaging.

Because mentalizing requires one to infer what others are thinking and feeling (Waytz & Epley, 2012) it becomes more difficult to do so as the other person becomes increasingly different from oneself. The more different someone is from oneself, the more difficult it can be to understand what they have been through, how their experiences have impacted them, and the perspective they approach problems with. Someone who does not identify as belonging to a sexual minority group could not think like or navigate the world as someone who belongs to a sexual minority population would, with one reason being that the concerns and experiences that individuals who are a sexual minority face can be different than those of people who are cis and heteronormative. It is also more difficult because stigmatized populations often have widespread stereotypes and assumptions made about them, which could cloud or influence the mentalization process.

When someone is not perceived as a part of one’s group, it becomes easier to dehumanize them (Waytz & Epley, 2012), which can lead to these groups more easily perpetrating “negative experiences” towards the groups they dehumanize. On the other hand, humanizing someone requires one to recognize that others also have emotions, goals, and struggles, just as they do themselves (Castro & Zautra, 2016). There is research that showed that across participants of differing racial groups, simply wondering about the other’s favorite vegetable was able to humanize them (Wheeler & Fiske, 2005, as cited in Castro & Zautra, 2016).

The use of mentalizing within this sort of research, is a branch of mind perception research that diverges from placing the burden of implementing a solution to “negative experiences” solely onto stigmatized groups. While doing these readings, and writing this post, it was clear to me how powerful mentalizing is, with the ability to help us forge close connections and great teamwork, but also the ability to enable the dehumanization of others. This makes it that much more important that we are aware of the ways this process can be beneficial and productive as well as biased and harmful as we continue to learn about and discuss social connections.

 

References

Castro, S. A., & Zautra, A. J. (2016). Humanization of social relations: Nourishing health and resilience through greater humanity. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36(2), 64–80.

Waytz, A., & Epley, N. (2012). Social connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 70–76.

Wheatley, T., Kang, O., Parkinson, C., & Looser, C. E. (2012). From mind perception to mental connection: Synchrony as a mechanism for social understanding. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(8), 589-606.

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The Good vs Bad of Mind Perception, Kara Xie and Orion Vigil

February 19th, 2022 · 15 Comments

Understanding someone else’s mind sounds extremely positive and is a great way to foster connections. However, what happens when understanding someone else’s mind leads to negative outcomes such as caring less about others? Here we delve into both sides of the coin for mind perception – the good and the bad. 

Components of mind perception that we will discuss below include mind detection, theory of mind, humanization, and dehumanization. Mind detection includes the identification of another entity with a mind, whereas theory of mind is the ability to infer the thoughts, feelings, desires of other people (Epley & Waytz, 2010). Humanization is attributing basic human qualities to others (Haslam, 2006) whereas dehumanization is the failure to attribute basic human qualities to others (Epley & Waytz, 2012) .

Kara: The Good

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

This is a line I repeat to my twin sister probably twice a day. Feeling so connected with someone else’s mind has never felt easier. Inferring thoughts and feelings of someone I grew up with, share the same DNA with, and understand so well is something I consider to be a great success of mind perception in my personal life. 

In the Wheatley reading and in class, we learned how easy it is to recognize a face. As humans, we overstate the importance of the face as a stimulus; they ultimately serve as facades of other’s minds (Wheatley et al., 2012). There was a huge jumble of objects in a collage on a big screen. When asked about the location of money, it took over two minutes. When asked about the location of a face, it was almost instantaneous. Now imagine if that face looks exactly like yours. Even more instantaneous. That is a metaphor for mind perception with an identical twin sister and one that I recognize everyday. 

Another perk of mind perception is the ease in facilitating social connection and interaction. My sister and I joke that we just constantly blabber to each other at lightning speed. There is zero response time; we just laugh and instantly continue the conversation, jumping from one conversation to the next. Researchers found that conversations with faster response times felt more connected, and a third party perceived the conversation as more enjoyable (Templeton et al., 2022). No wonder, I thought, when I first read the article and connected it to my sister. 

Furthermore, Wheatley and his team found that the brain has the same electro-cortical response for dolls and humans, but there is a significantly larger response to human faces (Wheatley et al, 2011). The increased firing for human faces compared to inanimate objects fosters a greater sense of sociality and interaction between human to human. Another topic close to mind perception is humanization. Studies found that humanizing others nourishes healthier relationships and creates more sustainable bonds in the long run (Castro & Zautra, 2016). Combining the firing of the brain’s cortical responses with the humanization creating long-term healthy bonds, it sets humans up for the perfect recipe of social connection and belonging. Being empathetic is a quality I really admire. I think we can all agree it is a great character trait to demonstrate. Failing to consider another person’s perspective or mind is dehumanizing that person. Being empathetic is essentially humanizing and taking the perspective of another person, and of course, super advantageous in making new friends and connections. Mind perception is a fundamental tool in understanding others and forming these close social connections that we crave as humans. 

Orion: The Bad

Social Connection Enables Dehumanization. This conclusion, outlined by Waytz and Epley in their 2012 paper of the same title, raises immediate concerns about the implications of meeting one’s own need for belongingness on others. As a self-identified relationship anarchist, or, a person who believes that love and connection are not a zero-sum game, the thought that “increasing social connection diminishes the motivation to connect with the minds of additional others and increases the social distance between the self and more distant others” directly questions my closely held beliefs about our ability to love (Waytz & Epley, 2012). My newfound sense of belonging with my roommates this year floated to the surface as I scanned the disturbing findings. Our friendship is built on a foundation of shared values and multiple overlapping identities, and they fill a need for belonging that I’m not sure was met even before the pandemic began. This is great, of course; my level of confidence, security, and general wellbeing has mostly skyrocketed since being part of this little friend group, where we work consistently to value, humanize, and understand each other. But I cannot help but wonder if our radical inclusivity when it comes to our unique insecurities, flaws, and struggles is not also inherently exclusionary. Have I, in cultivating such close bonds with them, begun seeing others less complexly?

This is not the first time I’ve felt such a compelling sense of belonging. In high school I was a proudly self-described theater kid, spending most of my hours backstage chatting, eating, and doing homework with other theater kids, even when not actively working on a production. I am sure that any team activity – sports, chess club, editorial teams – lends itself to the formation of this sort of shared identity. Working with other actors as part of a cast not only provides a teamwork-based foundation for closeness but actively encourages you to mentalize, mimic, and generally tune yourself to the thoughts and feelings of your castmates, because these are the things that contribute to great on-stage chemistry. Perspective-taking, or imagining oneself in the mental and emotional state of another, is literally baked into the craft. But there was something else. 

It is my experience that the shared “theater kid” identity that compels us to sequester ourselves backstage involves a feeling of unbelonging everywhere else. We are often, but not always, a queer, neurodiverse, or otherwise “different” bunch, which can make traditional high school hallways a less than comfortable environment. The fact that we humanize each other so intensely provides a much-needed home base and safety net for navigating school, and I think this is good and necessary. With time, though, I see how this also worked to reinforce my belief that I would not be accepted and isolate myself from others. Occasionally, I have, in years since graduating, met and connected with a classmate outside of theater who remembers me – remembers what classes I took and which performances I was in, what I was studying, and where I worked for my senior project – while I did not remember very much about them at all. This troubles me, especially because the reason I do not remember is almost always that I assumed they, as people outside my in-group, would not accept me. So I just didn’t pay very close attention.

While this is of course a bit of a sad realization, Waytz and Epley outline far more serious consequences to our failure to humanize than missed high-school connections. It is, according to them, the mechanism of satiated need for belonging leading to indifference, not necessarily hatred, that laid the groundwork for the most atrocious crimes human beings have committed against one another in history. What do we do with this information? Obviously, I do not think it wise to starve ourselves of such a basic need for belongingness and connection. I do think we have a calling we cannot ignore to build communities that are affirming, supportive, and uplifting – but do so without defining a rigid, inflexible “them” and “us.” There is hope for this: one study found that having a strong moral identity, or sense of identification with the moral values of one’s communities, makes people “more likely to extend moral concern” to those outside their in-group (Smith et al., 2014). Yet more research is needed in identifying the protective factors that can help us continue to humanize others while meeting our own need for connection. 

References 

Epley, N., & Waytz, A. (2010). Mind perception.

Wheatley, T., Kang, O., Parkinson, C., & Looser, C. E. (2012). From mind perception to mental connection: Synchrony as a mechanism for social understanding. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(8), 589-606. 

Wheatley, T., Weinberg, A., Looser, C., Moran, T., & Hajcak, G. (2011). Mind perception: Real but not artificial faces sustain neural activity beyond the N170/VPP. PloS one, 6(3), e17960.

Castro, S. A., & Zautra, A. J. (2016). Humanization of social relations: Nourishing health and resilience through greater humanity. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36(2), 64–80. 

Waytz, A., & Epley, N. (2012). Social connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 70–76.

Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and social psychology review, 10(3), 252-264.

Melophilius (2016). Good Days and Bad [gif]. Imgur. https://imgur.com/gallery/SV5hgpE/comment/673589168

Smith, I. H., Aquino, K., Koleva, S., & Graham, J. (2014). The moral ties that bind . . . Even to out-groups: The interactive effect of moral identity and the binding moral foundations. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1554–1562. 

Templeton, E. M., Chang, L. J., Reynolds, E. A., LeBeaumont, M. D. C., & Wheatley, T. (2022). Fast response times signal social connection in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(4).

 

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Imitation in Our Lives, by Nia Fernandes, Jonathan Yuan & Sierra Agarwal

February 10th, 2022 · 26 Comments

We realized after reading the research papers on imitation that studying imitation transcends paper and is present in each of our lives. Every human has been impacted by imitation whether it be consciously or unconsciously. We wanted to shed light on how imitation has played a role in our lives as college students. From sharing how our home lives have affected us in seminar classes to looking at our friend circles and teammates, there is value in understanding the effectiveness of imitation in our daily lives and upbringing.

Nia: Imitation in The Family

After reading the Cheng article on self-monitoring without awareness, I realized that most children learn through nonconscious methods of imitation (Cheng & Chartrand, 2003). This may bring to light how we learnt to talk or walk, but I want to focus not on how imitation assimilates us into society, but on how it can differentiate each of us. The people we are around, our families, our culture, our hometowns, classmates, etc. shape each of us into who we are and continue to shape our future lives.

In my own family, I only have older brothers. Because of this, I would try to mimic everything they would do. From being a toddler and trying to use the bathroom like a boy to only wanting to play sports and do other traditionally masculine activities, I was completely ignorant to my non-conscious forms of mimicry. My father raised me the same way he did with his sons, so it never came as a surprise within my family that traditionally feminine activities, like “playing princess” or dressing up barbies, never appealed to me. It was easy for me to rationalize when my parents wanted me to be like “the boys”. I was consciously aware of this mimicry. However, it was not until I was older that I realized all of the subconscious ways mimicry had impacted me. I felt out of place interacting with large groups of girls when I had to do traditionally feminine activities. They were not doing anything wrong, but it was hard for me to “act” like they did without being consciously aware or “self-monitoring” my behaviors. I would sometimes question my own motives. Am I only doing this because everyone else is doing it? Do I really want to try on each other’s clothes and have a girls’ night? Why did I feel more comfortable playing sports with “the guys”? These feelings I had growing up manifested into me being a “high self-monitor” as I got older (Cheng & Chartrand, 2003).

While I’m no longer a complete tomboy playing in the yard with my brothers, I realized that being thrown into situations that felt “socially threatening” at a young age forced me to use mimicry when I felt uncomfortable. I am now a senior in college, and consciously or not, using affiliation cues to gauge when I should imitate others in a situation still holds true for me (Cheng & Chartrand, 2003). After this week’s readings, I urge each of you to look into how imitation has impacted your life from your upbringing. While we grow up to leave our homes, the standards and lifestyle of our homes set not only the expectations we have in social situations but also how we navigate them.

Jonathan: Imitation in Friend Groups

After making my way back to Harvard this year and reimmersing myself into the social community on campus, I could not help but notice how much I’ve begun to alter my behavior to match those around me. Whether it’s suddenly saying words from a TikTok that I have never seen or noticing friends adopting my hand gestures during enthusiastic conversation, mimicry seems to be a constant occurrence now, especially as we reintegrate into society after being isolated for the past few years during the pandemic. I’ve noticed this happen among my long-lasting friendships from childhood too, slowly adopting lingo, ways of speaking, or behaviors that only become evident after they fully become my own. This process often happens outside of the realm of conscious control and is hard to explain or track, but feels satisfying nonetheless.

According to psychological studies of mimicry and its effect on belonging and connection, this pattern of imitation has important implications on social relationships based on the specific contexts it is employed in. According to a study conducted by Leander et. al., context had a major impact on how mimicry affected individuals’ perceptions of those around them. The study demonstrated that mimicry improved perception of others among participants in a more intimate and friendly setting, whereas it elicited physical and emotional coldness in a more impersonal and distant setting (Leander et al., 2012). This emphasis on context makes sense in the discussion of friendships because these relationships are often incredibly intimate and among peers of equal status, so engaging in mimicry would have a positive effect on the relationship.

Mimicry is also shown to have a beneficial outcome on the strength of social interactions. Stel and Vonk found that the closeness and smoothness of interactions were heightened among two participants when one mimicked the other’s facial expressions and non-verbal actions (Stel & Vonk, 2010). I found in my own interactions that the realization of mimicry typically comes with lots of laughter and a greater sense of joy in having an impact on others in this way. Given that this happens in the instances where we can catch the mimicry and that a majority of it goes under the radar, the presence of mimicry in friendships makes a lot of sense, since it leads to a greater sense of connection to others and leads to a more stable relationship moving forward.

Though often our values and upbringings encourage us to think of ourselves as unique individuals, perhaps this focus of independence is a bit too narrow-minded. As we develop complex and intimate relationships with those around us, adopting elements of those who we think are important is a fundamental part of who we are and who we become, as demonstrated by these studies and more. I encourage you to take a look at your interactions with your friends and see if you can find any signs of mimicry; if you do, then you might just have a keeper.

Sierra: Imitation in Sport

Throughout the majority of my childhood, I was a competitive gymnast training eight hours a day and up to thirty two hours a week. My teammates were my closest friends, while also being my closest competitors. When you are spending so much time with the same people in such a competitive yet family-like environment, you start to pick up tendencies that specific individuals have. In particular, I had one teammate who would always style her hair in the locker room into a slick back, tight ballerina bun. I knew that no matter what, she would always do so. Whether I wanted to pick up on these tendencies or not, it was inevitable, and as time went on, I began to mimic some of them. I was the youngest of my teammates by two years, which naturally, had me look up to them and admire what they could do. All that I wanted to achieve was what the “older girls” could, and I would do anything in order to accomplish so.

Recent research has shown that mimicry facilitates the bonds that people form, as well as the emotions that people feel with each other (Stel & Vonk, 2010).  In sport, the importance of team chemistry is always reiterated because of its impact. Going back to my earlier point on picking up my teammate’s tendencies of how she styled her hair, before I knew it, I began to style my hair in the exact same way that she did. I began to notice that when I did so, I naturally felt closer with her because we had something in common that we didn’t have before. This revealed to me that something as small as styling my hair the same could have such a large impact on my teammate’s and I relationship. My teammate and I began sharing more emotional stories with one another, and were generally more open with one another because we had a stronger and deeper emotional bond. This, all in all, showed me that mimicry positively impacted the bond I formed with my teammate on both a personal and emotional level, thus supporting the findings of Stel & Vonk (2010).

Another study conducted by Ashton-James et al., (2007) found that how close people are is affected by mimicking, and specifically found that it brings people closer to one another. As said before, being the youngest on my team put me in the position to naturally see my teammates as those who I want to look up to and do the same as they did. Sport is about repetition, it is about having a confident mindset and it is about knowing that your teammates have your back. To the repetition piece, I would physically imitate the certain skills or moves my teammates would do. They would do a round off, I would do a round off. They would do a full turn, I would do a full turn. By mimicking their actions, I connected with them on a deeper level to where we would bond and connect over the struggles or achievements we had over a particular skill. Going through this experience supports the findings that Ashton-James et al., (2007) found in the sense that we both understood the complexities that went into our performance, and by imitating what the older girls were doing, we were able to form a connection that was closer. 

While gymnastics had a large impact on my life and how I view older individuals, I strongly think that everyone should have either a formal or informal mentor on whatever team they are a part of. Whether that is in the workplace, in school, in sport, or whatever else it is where you are working with others, find that person who you can look up to, who will push you to want to do what they do, and ultimately, mimic.

 

References

Ashton-James, C., van Baaren, R. B., Chartrand, T. L., Decety, J., & Karremans, J. (2007). Mimicry and me: The impact of mimicry on self-construal. Social Cognition, 25, 518–535.

Cheng, C. M., & Chartrand, T. L. (2003). Self-monitoring without awareness: using mimicry as a nonconscious affiliation strategy. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(6), 1170.

Leander, N. P., Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (2012). You Give Me the Chills: Embodied Reactions to Inappropriate Amounts of Behavioral Mimicry. Psychological Science, 23(7), 772–779. 

Stel, M., & Vonk, R. (2010). Mimicry in social interaction: Benefits for mimickers, mimickees, and their interaction. British journal of psychology, 101(2), 311-323.

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