top of page
  • Writer's pictureCUBISS Cambridge

Physical, but not social distancing: a case for comfort food, guilt-free TV and symbolic socialising

CNs: ‘comfort eating’, mental health, covid-19, loneliness

Humans are an incredibly social species, so it’s no great surprise that a lot of us are struggling with isolation and distancing. In fact, a survey by Mind found that nearly three quarters (73%) of students said that their mental health declined during the lockdown, a figure highlighted by b&together (pronounced ‘band together’) Cambridge’s recent 73-73 campaign. Although lack of social connection is not the only difficulty we are facing at the moment, it is something that we possibly have more control over than you might think...


The poorly named concept of ‘social distancing’ is familiar to us all by now, and although we understand it to actually mean physical distancing, these public health measures have unfortunately also led to a loss of social connection for many of us. Shared activities, such as sitting in a lecture theatre or being part of a crowd, foster a feeling of connection mixed with sacredness known as collective effervescence (not to be confused with a communist version of 90s rock band Evanescence). Research by Gabriel (2019) found that collective effervescent experiences are common; ¾ of people experience collective effervescence at least once a week and ⅓ experience them every day, however with social distancing, these moments are likely to be less common. It doesn’t have to be anything out of the ordinary, collective effervescence can be generated by everyday events, but still, the resultant feeling is a “powerful psychological experience connected to strong emotions and wellbeing” (Gabriel, 2019; 129). With that being said, it might be worth trying to create or participate in some moments of collective effervescence, like weekly online zumba with friends or joining a virtual walking tour. Although a zoom workout may not quite match the contagious euphoria of being in the crowd at a concert of your favourite band, pseudo-socialising may be better than complete self-isolation.

With lockdown three arguably being the worst ‘third installment’ ever (aside from Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked - rated just 12% on Rotten Tomatoes), it can be hard to muster the energy to engage with, let alone organise social events. Although zoom calls are no longer a novel experience, it doesn’t mean the benefits of pseudo-socialising are nullified. Doing things like committing in advance to a group call (schedule it in your diary!), and persuading your friends that the one thing they’re missing in their lives is a sprinkle of collective effervescence (gain your friends’ support!), can help make online socialising a little bit easier.

Social surrogates

Although friends and family can be an important aspect of your sense of belonging and well-being, there are symbolic social connections that can be made without any human interaction at all. Social need fulfillment, Gabriel and colleagues (2016) argue, is such a strong motivation that we seek to fulfil social motivation in subtle, and sneaky ways. What we may consider to be ‘guilty pleasures’ such as turning on the TV or snuggling up on the sofa with a good book, is argued to be an attempt, albeit unconscious, to fulfil pervasive needs for social connection. Humans are flexible in the ways they meet their needs, for example, historically, coca leaves have been used to suppress the appetite when food is scarce, or more contemporarily we turn to caffeine when we are sleep-deprived. Similarly, Gabriel and colleagues argue, we seek social connection in 3 forms:

  • Social worlds (immersive narratives such as those in books, TV shows or movies)

  • Reminders of others (pictures of friends, comfort food and social media)

  • Parasocial relationships (one-sided psychological bonds, such as following of a celebrity or engagement with fictional characters).

Perhaps the ability to feel a social connection in these ways is unsurprising to bookworms, who have been embedded in the social networks of fictional characters for centuries. I’m sure most people have enjoyed the feeling of being lost in a book before, so it’s not too strange to consider reading as a means of symbolic social connection. However, the ability to closely follow a TV series is a more novel concept, arguably only more recently permitted with the rise of streaming services. But perhaps the most striking social surrogate is the consumption of ‘comfort food’.

The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlor firesides on winter evenings. - Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

A term coined in 1977, ‘comfort food’ describes food which satiate both physical and emotional needs, often associated with food previously prepared by caregivers. Numerous studies have found that people often consume comfort foods to combat negative emotions (Dube et al., 2015; Evers et al., 2010), indicating an emotional relationship with food. However, reasoning behind comfort eating extends beyond negative emotionality, with Gabriel (2016) arguing that when and what we eat can be predicted by social utility and that this social link occurs outside of conscious awareness. This is exemplified in the research finding that securely attached individuals are able to reduce feelings of loneliness just by thinking about comfort foods (ibid).

These social surrogates have been researched by Gabriel and her colleagues for over a decade, but are still seen as relatively new concepts in the field of social psychology. It is worth pointing out that the benefits of pseudo-socialising are not argued to be equal to, or even close to the power of real social connections. Instead, symbolic social connections demonstrate the strength of our desire for human connection as being so strong that we are able to find it in inanimate aspects of everyday life.

Relationship remedies

As if you needed another excuse to watch TV, research by Gomillion and colleagues (2017) found that sharing media, for example watching a TV series together, can promote relationship quality for couples who share few friends in the real world. Given that a lot of relationships are being forced to trial ‘long-distance mode’ in lockdown, many couples are currently lacking access to their shared social networks, and for new couples, they may not have been able to even form these shared friends. Although sharing a social identity may not seem particularly important, it has been found that it increases people’s sense of social connections and belonging (Levine and Higgins, 2001), something that is in short supply in isolation.

Gomillion’s study involved 259 North American students, averaging 19.23 years old, in exclusive relationships for at least 4 months. For students with few mutual friends, sharing media predicted greater relationship quality, as measured by interdependence, closeness and confidence in the relationship (p < .001). Despite the largely homogenous and fairly small sample, I think the magnitude of the effect warrants a few Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) sessions with your significant other.

Prompt yourself to engage in this behaviour by avoiding viewing it as lazy, but rather as something you would make time for in normal circumstances anyway. Although you might not factor in a few hours on Netflix as part of your non-pandemic routine, you would naturally be chatting with others a lot more in real life; however for conscientious individuals, this break from work can be guilt-inducing. Perhaps attempt to reduce the cognitive dissonance with some reasoning: “I can afford to take this time to watch Netflix with my partner, because in real-life we would have been spending time together anyway.”


There is still considerable research needed in order to elucidate the influence of unconscious social motivations on our behaviour, particularly outside of WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich, demographic) countries. However, there is no harm in being attuned to your basic human needs; as a need that is so often overlooked, take this blog post as a reminder of the value of your social connections, be them with Harry Potter, your best friend or Ben and Jerry’s (nobody’s judging).

If any of the topics raised in this blog post affected you, these links may be helpful:


Food and ‘comfort eating’:

Molly Ghinn

Social Media Manager

(Edited by Jasmine Lee, Secretary of CUBISS)



Echterhoff, G., Higgins, E. T., & Levine, J. M. (2009). Shared reality: Experiencing commonality with others’ inner states about the world. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 496–521. Retrieved from

Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2019). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129–154.

Gabriel,S., Valenti,J., & Young,A., Social Surrogates, Social Motivations, and Everyday Activities in Olson, J. M., & Zanna, M. P. (2016). Advances in experimental social psychology. Volume 53. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.

Gomillion, S., Gabriel, S., Kawakami, K., & Young, A. F. (2016). Let’s stay home and watch TV. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34(6), 855–874.

115 views0 comments
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page