摘要：A rise in antisocial behaviour indicates covid-19 lockdowns disrupted our cultural evolution, says Jonathan R. Goodman
RECENTLY, some colleagues of mine put on a public health conference. More than 80 people registered for the in-person-only event, and we ordered coffees and snacks for a little under that number – assuming, as is the norm, that 20 to 30 per cent of people would drop out.
Surprisingly, it was closer to 90 per cent. Only a handful of people showed up. We were shocked and distressed, and started speculating about why the turnout was so bad. Then someone mentioned that this kind of thing is more common after the covid-19 lockdowns: people just don’t like leaving their homes anymore.
A quick search online will show you that our experience wasn’t a fluke. Some journalists and science centres have also noted that people were behaving antisocially – harassing others or causing distress – during the lockdowns. All this suggests that the process underlying cultural change – what is known as cultural evolution – requires a lot of regular social interaction to maintain itself. Society is probably more fragile than many of us would like to think.
Cultural evolution is how information that can’t be encoded in your genes is shared or changes. We learn a lot from our elders and contemporaries, things like language and social norms that we just can’t spring from the womb understanding. Over the past 30 years or so, cultural evolution has exploded as an academic field, with computer models and lab experiments showing that the cultural sharing of social norms is central to the stability of society.
Yet it may be that those norms need a lot more maintenance than we might have thought. A 2022 paper in Crime Scienceshowed a 50 per cent uptick in antisocial behaviours during periods in 2020 and 2021. These findings contrasted strongly with data suggesting that rates of crimes such as theft and burglary dropped.
Other strange trends – or new cultural traits, to use the language of cultural evolution researchers – popped up over the 2020 to 2022 period. People started referring to “goblin mode”, or hiding in your house, closing the blinds, playing games, watching TV and eating junk food for hours. (I confess that when I first heard the term, I thought: “That sounds nice!”)
In a way, the covid-19 lockdowns were a large-scale experiment in what happens to our culturally transmitted norms when we enforce physical separation from others. The results are, to say the least, discouraging. The behaviours we have seen over the past few years suggest that not only do we need cultural transmission to learn how to behave sociably, we need repeated and regular interaction to maintain norms. In other words, if I explain to a child that it is mean to yell at other people, it seems it isn’t enough to only do this once.
The behaviours we have seen – and continue to see, if our recent conference failure reflects wider trends – indicate that covid-19 lockdowns forced a kind of reverse cultural evolutionary process. We are social animals who need regular interaction, and depriving us of socialising releases a culturally primitive, largely antisocial goblin.
The good news, however, is that the world’s accidental experiment in the shortcomings of our ability to hold on to cultural norms implicitly suggests some fixes. It is clear that digital communication – sitting in depressing Zoom meetings and playing the odd online game with friends – isn’t enough to maintain norms across society. And so we, individually and as cultural groups, should promote in-person socialisation (this does not mean required appearances at the office) where possible – and encourage others to overcome their inner goblins.
Otherwise, at the very least, many more free biscuits might go to waste.