Social isolationism is hard. Blame the culture of California, or of America, or plain old human nature.

April 30, 2020

USC experts explain some of the underlying factors of why it is so hard to stay at home even when your health may be impacted.

Contact: Gary Polakovic (323) 527-7770 or


Evolution explains why humans need social bonds

Craig Stanford, chairman of the anthropology department at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and co-director at USC’s Goodall Research Center. He’s an expert in apes, primate societies and human behavior, and human evolution.

“Being in social groups is central to us as a species for as long as we’ve been a species. One of the very top things that make us human is being social,” Stanford said. “One of the worst things we can do to someone is to isolate them or exile them. There’s an unhealthy element to it, no matter how we explain it.”

He added:

  • Most mammals are solitary, but social behavior is ingrained in primate societies and passed along to human societies.
  • Humans evolved while deriving great benefits from socialization, including hunting and survival skills, teaching children and political skills.
  • “Social distancing” has a harmful effect when we only need physical distancing to protect against coronavirus.



America’s DNA is freedom and conquest, not fear and hiding

Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She is an expert U.S. political culture, constitutional law and human rights.

“America’s national identity is about political freedom. Our identity is we don’t stay still long, we go conquer things, like the American conquest of wilderness. But now nature, the coronavirus, controls us, when we are used to conquering nature, so it goes against the grain because it’s contrary to American mythology,” Renteln said.

She added:

  • The United States is founded on individual liberty and resistance to government telling citizens what to do.
  • “American exceptionalism” conditions us to think rules don’t apply to us, which makes COVID-19 restrictions difficult to accept.
  • Science skepticism and anti-intellectualism have gained ground in America, making it a challenge to persuade some people to take precautions.
  • Coronavirus strikes a fault line between protecting the American people or the world’s biggest economy.
  • The pandemic challenges an American worldview that is future-focused, energetic and youthful, and likes happy endings.


The human brain craves connections, abhors isolation

Jonas Kaplan, assistant professor of psychology at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, cognitive neuroscientist at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute and co-director of the Dornsife Neuroimaging Center.

“People have a strong need to bond with other people; it’s important for our mental health. Isolation is not healthy for us,” Kaplan said. “As the weather gets warmer, it’s going to be hard to keep people indoors and away from the beach and the California outdoor lifestyle.”

He added:

  • The human brain is wired to seek social interaction, including subconscious behaviors to promote bonds.
  • Zoom and other social media platforms help overcome isolation, but only so far as they are inadequate surrogates for real contact.
  • Californians love sunshine, cultural events and recreational activities, a lifestyle that coronavirus has taken away.
  • Mixed emotions are natural during lockdown, and coping means finding new joys in family, music or exercise.

Contact: or @Jonas_Kaplan


Unfettered freedom has consequences as coronavirus lurks

Paula Cannon, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, is an expert in COVID-19, HIV, Ebola and other viruses.

“It’s simple math: if more people go out, people increase their risk of being infected, and nature will return the favor and have more people infected,” Cannon said. “If people act as individuals, versus what one should do as a member of our community, it can undermine the hard work we’ve done to control the spread of the virus.”

She added:

  • Coronavirus is dangerous because it’s a stealth infection; a person could be infected, not know it, and spread disease.
  • Outdoors is safer than indoors, but even the beach has places where people congregate.
  • There is no zero risk for COVID-19 infection. Said Cannon: “Just because it seems safe doesn’t mean it is safe. Just because you, or people you know, are not sick doesn’t mean it’s safe. The virus is still there.”

Contact: or @PaulaUSC