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Protection and Risk: Social Cohesion during Lockdown

The CovSocial Project Analyzes the Mental Health and Social Cohesion of the Citizens of Berlin during the COVID-19 Pandemic

News from Apr 20, 2022

In the CovSocial project, scholars and scientists led by Prof. Dr. Tania Singer from the Research Group Social Neuroscience of the Max Planck Society are investigating how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health and social cohesion of Berlin citizens in the pandemic years 2020 to 2022. CovSocial is funded by the Max Planck Society and the Berlin University Alliance (BUA) and works in cooperation with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin as well as the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. The initial results of the project have now been published in two papers in the journals Frontiers in Psychiatry and International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“The Lockdown has led to Psychological Stress”

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have presented unexpected challenges to society. For mental health in particular, such a crisis combined with the loss of social contacts can have devastating consequences. The importance of social interaction for the psyche has long been acknowledged. Nevertheless, in psychology the debate about social cohesion, i.e. the social solidarity of people in a society, is relatively rare.

In the CovSocial study, more than 3,500 people answered questions via a mobile app about their subjective experience before the pandemic in January 2020, during the first lockdown in March 2020, and after the re-opening in June 2020. “The results show that the first lockdown in March and April 2020 led to incisive psychological distress such as increased stress, loneliness, depressiveness, and anxiety. Social cohesion was shown to be both a threatening and a protective factor for the psyche,” says the head of the project, Tania Singer.

Low Social Cohesion During the First Lockdown

It is known from psychosocial disaster research that many people respond to collective stressful situations with prosocial behavior and social commitment rather than selfishness. Often, people also exhibit “tend-and-befriend” behavior during stressful times, meaning they show more cooperation and charity and even make new friends. Social cohesion is thus a coping strategy in times of crisis that enables people to better adapt to difficult new living conditions.

In contrast to these findings, the CovSocial project’s study for the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic reveals a vastly different picture: instead of an increase in social interactions, initially the opposite was true. There was a decline in social cohesion. “The prescribed social distance and isolation probably prevented us from giving and receiving support and help to and from others in ways previously common to us,” says Dr. Sarita Silveira, postdoctoral researcher in the research group and first author of the publications.

Another surprising finding, she said, was that the mental health of those individuals who had actually previously enjoyed elevated levels of social cohesion was particularly affected by the consequences of the first lockdown. “Although social cohesion is usually a resilience factor, the sudden isolation was probably a shock for the more social among us at first, because the usual social coping strategies, such as meetings with friends or neighbors, could no longer be applied. These people first had to find new ways of making social contacts, for example via online platforms or neighborhood apps,” says Tania Singer. However, the study also shows that those who managed to maintain their social relationships during the lockdown were significantly better able to recover from psychological distress during the re-opening in June 2020. “The pandemic was both a health crisis and a social crisis. It shows how important the promotion of social interaction is for dealing with collective crises – even in social isolation,” says Sarita Silveira.

The project will be funded under the BUA "Special Call: Pandemic Research".

To the publications

Scientific contact

Prof. Dr. Tania Singer
Social Neuroscience Lab,
Max Planck Society
Tel.: +49 30 209346-180
Email: office@social.mpg.de 

The Berlin University Alliance

The Berlin University Alliance is a consortium consisting of three major Berlin universities – Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin – and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, established to shape research and education in Berlin. The four partners joined forces to further develop Berlin as a research hub with international drawing power. Together the partners explore major societal challenges, increase public outreach, promote the training of junior researchers, address issues of quality and standards in research, and share resources in the areas of research infrastructure, teaching, diversity, equal opportunities, and internationalization. The Berlin University Alliance is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the state of Berlin under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder.

Joint press release from Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin along with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Press contact
Suhana Elisabeth Reddy, press spokesperson for the Berlin University Alliance
Email: medien@berlin-university-alliance.de 

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