How important is socialising ? We interviewed an expert from Oxford University on how important a pint with your mates can really be. Robin Dunbar researches social bonding in humans and primates, and is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist with a particular interest in how alcohol is used to bond people. He says “Friendships protect us against outside threats and internal stresses, and this has been key to our evolutionary success. Primate social groups, unlike most other animals, rely on bonding to maintain social coherence. And for humans, this is where a shared bottle of red wine plays a powerful role.”
Name: Professor Robin Dunbar
What does he do?
He researches evolutionary psychology, specifically behavioural, cognitive and neuroendocrinological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates. He has a particular interest in what role alcohol has to play in this.
What are the problems if we lack social bonding?
Loneliness as individuals, and social fragmentation as a society.
Do you think social media “connections” provide the same amount of endorphins?
No. Or at least put it this way: you get something of a buzz from social media, but you don’t get the full impact of a face-to-face interaction. From our research, it is clear that people rate face-to-face interactions well above those via digital media.
Are people getting lonelier? Why do you think that is ?
Yes. In part, it may be due to us living longer: we find it more difficult to make new friendships in older age, so as our old friends die off they aren’t replaced. In part, it is due to our more transient existence: people move a great deal more thanks mainly to cheap travel. In part, it is due to urbanization combined with the fact that our social networks are now dispersed rather than geographically concentrated.
Where is this a problem mainly/what part of the world?
Everywhere, because people are converging on towns and cities in every country. The current UN prediction is that by 2050 80% of the world’s population will live in large conurbations.
Where in the world is loneliness not so much of a problem/what are they doing right?
Certainly in small scale rural societies. These can be anywhere from the highland and islands of Scotland to the forests of the Amazon. It is just a scale problem: when there are only a few hundred people in the community, everyone knows everyone else and people are less likely to drop through the cracks without someone noticing. Most of these societies experience much less mental health.
Favourite/most interesting experiments done on the topic?
My favourite is the evidence that your chances of surviving 12 months after your first heart attack are most affected by the quality of the friendships you have.
How would you advise non-drinkers to get those crucial endorphins/ social ?
Historically, we have found many ways to triggering the endorphin system in a social context. I would hazard the guess (and it is a guess) that coffee does a good job (anything that bitter must hit the endorphins!), and many cultures do that in a social context. Eating socially works well. And so do singing and laughter. The main advantage of alcohol is that it makes us less restrained and more willing to engage socially – but its risk is that too much and it has an increasingly adverse effect (never mind the medical consequences).
How do you think drinking is changing and what effect do you think this will have?
Perhaps the main issue is the fact that people are drinking more at home and alone – the main factor causing the demise of pubs. Pubs-as-restaurants probably don’t have the same effect as pubs-as-community-centres. So, as much as anything, it is the loss of places to meet regularly that aren’t drinking dens (in the modern High Street sense).
You stated that mental and physical pain trigger endorphins, can endorphins be addictive in this manner?
Yes, but only psychologically so. We do not seem to get addicted to them in the sense of pleasure-seeking in the physiological way we get destructively addicted to morphine and other opiates.