Two recent studies explored characteristics of social interactions that people perceive as energy intensive. Results showed that people saw social interactions that required more communication, offered more interaction choices, and where others were less familiar as more energy intensive. They tended to seek solitude after such interactions. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Discussions about how ready and motivated people are to perform certain activities or be generally active often include discussions of energy. In physics, energy has many forms and its conversion from one form into another can be used to perform work. However, in psychology, energy refers to the strength and vitality one requires for sustained physical or mental activities. Energy, in this psychological meaning, is an intuitive experience and it influences people’s social experiences and the quality of their day.
Social interactions are necessary to sustain people’s fundamental needs, but they also require energy. Not all social activities spend energy equally. While people feel energetic and vigorous after some activities, others can leave a person feeling exhausted and with a strong desire to spend time alone and recuperate.
Study author Jeffrey A. Hall and his colleagues wanted to understand where people spend their energy for social interactions. They were also interested in exploring how this relates to the satisfaction of the need to belong through everyday interactions.
“My interest was both practical and theoretical,” explained Hall, a professor of communication studies and director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas and the author of “Relating Through Technology.”
“People intuitively understand social energy. They talk about not having the bandwidth to go out, and talk about a conversation or a person being exhausting. People recognize that some social encounters will require energy from them. People understand it, but there are few research perspectives on social energy. Kinesiologists have long studied energy use, but they focus on calorie burning activities like exercise. Our paper explored what makes an interaction socially energy intensive.”
“I developed a theory of social interaction that examines social energy,” Hall explained. “The Communicate Bond Belong Theory asserts that people will not endlessly engage in social interaction but will balance social interaction with their available energy and their need to belong. This paper sought to explore how people regulate their social energy after highly energy-taxing interactions and after energetic interactions in everyday life.”
Hall and his colleagues designed two studies to investigate the consequences of social interactions.
The first study was a survey asking participants to describe their highest energy-expending social event or interaction in the past 2 months. Participants were 309 MTurk workers, who were paid $1.5 each for their participation and undergraduate university students enrolled in introductory communication course at a public university in the Midwest. They answered an open-ended question about the social interaction or event that required the most energy from them.
After this, the participants completed a questionnaire describing factors they saw as the most important reasons why the interaction they described was so energy intensive. Finally, they completed assessments of their feelings of connection and disconnection (the State Social Connection Scale) and answered questions about how they felt after the interaction and whether they desired company or solitude afterwards.
The second study was a 10-day experience sampling study. One hundred and twenty undergraduate university students downloaded a phone app that popped up at 7 random times each day asking them to complete a survey about the current moment. The survey asked them whether they wish they were interacting with someone or to be alone (“Do you wish you were engaged in an interaction with someone right now or are you content being alone?”), about the energy requirements of the current interaction, whether they wanted to be engaged in the interaction, the type of the interaction, the number of people they are interacting with, and how familiar these people are (“Is the person you interacted with a stranger or someone you have an established relationship with?”).
Results of study 1 indicated that a lack of connection with the people one is interacting with is associated with higher fatigue. Participants reported feeling more tired when they were participating in a loud, exciting event that lasted longer and less tired when they felt more connection and when they were interested in the interaction/event. After such energy-intensive interactions, participants reported wanting to be alone more than they reported wanting to be in the company of others.
Results of study 2 showed that conflict, complaining or venting, work or school talk and meaningful conversations were the most energy-intensive social interaction episodes. Interactions with familiar people expended less energy than interactions with strangers. Feelings of loneliness and connection both expended more energy. When either of these feeling was intensive, the person felt like expending more energy.
“One surprising result that we found was how feeling connected and feeling lonely were associated with more energy cost,” Hall told PsyPost. “Consider the difference between going to a party where you know people and people like you or a party where you don’t know anyone or feel unwelcome. In both cases, participants reported feeling that they were exhausted after a night of socializing, but they felt very differently emotionally.”
“The second surprising result is connected to the first. We found a fascinating link among post-interaction fatigue, social energy, and loneliness. Participants who felt lonely or rejected after a high-energy interaction (think of having hurt feelings or feeling unappreciated) were more likely to be alone afterward. But, they were more likely to want to have company if they were alone. Feeling rejected heightened people’s need to belong, but because they are tired there isn’t much they can do about it. This describes the experience of feeling tired but wishing you had someone to talk to.”
The research indicates that energy expense, rather than the need for belongingness, is a better indicator of whether people want to be alone or with others in the future. Cumulative fatigue from energy-intensive social interaction motivates people to be alone, while the desire for interaction is more strongly linked to the fulfillment of the need to belong.
“Social energy is a various experience – it is emotionally good and bad, exciting and nervous, and inspiring and dull. There isn’t just one experience of interactions burning social energy,” Hall said.
The most important factors were being interested in the interaction, caring about the outcome of the interaction, how long it lasted, and worry about self-presentation (e.g., how you come across or what people think of you). These factors were relevant both in major events and in everyday experiences.
“Certain conversations and certain people were also very energy intensive,” Hall told PsyPost. “Both positive conversations – like meaningful talk — and negative conversations – like arguing or venting — were taxing. Workplace conversations were also typical, but tiring. People put more energy into interactions with important people in their lives, but overall we used less energy when we were around familiar others. This is consistent with my theory in that we invest our energy in people we care about the most, but in the long run being around familiar people takes less work.”
The study makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of factors affecting social interaction experiences. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all assessments were based on self-reports and it is uncertain how accurate the reports about energy were. Additionally, most of the participants were students and young people. Results in other age groups might not be the same.
“This was an exploratory study,” Hall said. “This was one of few studies that examines what social energy is and how it works. It likely ties into feeling tired after heightened arousal, but curiously participants reported fatigue when they are also dull and bored. I would love to follow up with a study that used objective measures of energy like doubly-laden water or actigraphy.”
“I think that social energy is a concept that people are very interested in and we have only begun to scratch the surface on the role it plays in who we interact with, whether we are willing to put energy into social events or encounters, and how we prioritize our relationships, and what conversation technologies we choose to socialize (like texting, phone calls).”
The study, “Social Bandwidth: When and Why Are Social Interactions Energy Intensive?”, was authored by Jeffrey A. Hall, Jess Dominguez, Andy J. Merolla, and Christopher D. Otmar.