In the book Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach was very interested in what space travel does to the human mind. Not necessarily the effects of zero gravity on the mind or the effect of being outside the Earth looking back on the planet, but the effect of being stuck in a small space, where everything is monitored, with other people, and no way to escape it all for 6 months or longer. What Roach learned is that irrational antagonism can set in, putting the whole space voyage at risk.
She writes, “Psychologists use the term irrational antagonism to describe what happens between people isolated together for more than about six weeks.” People stuck in a single spot with only each other to keep them company begin to find petty annoyances in the behaviors of the people they are with. Roach uses a quote from a French anthropologist in the Arctic to demonstrate irrational antagonism. The man came to see the very traits he initially admired about the person he was isolated alongside as annoyances and points of frustration. In other examples, people began to intentionally annoy their isolated compatriots, deliberately doing things they knew would slightly grate the other people. Even close friends can find that they begin to hate the people they are with, to pick small fights with them, or to act out passive aggressively toward them. Cooperation, coordination, and cordiality all break down as small acts of defiance build up.
In 2021 it is safe to say that many of us may have experienced some degree of irrational antagonism in the last year or so. As we have been in varying stages of lockdown across the planet, some of us have effectively been in isolation with a spouse, a roommate, or a family member whose company we genuinely enjoy…at least when we can get away from them for a little while. Humans are social creatures and we seem to desire very close relationships with immediate family members and a handful of friends. At the same time, we seem to also like our space and independence from others, and we like to (at least occasionally) also engage with groups of people, not the same small dyads or clusters. Being able to move about freely and being able to interact with numerous other people seems to help us stay balanced and helps us enjoy the people in our lives. Being too isolated with a limited number of people seems to make us less sociable and less cooperative with others. I’m sure this goes for just about everyone, regardless as to whether we consider ourselves introverts or extroverts. We need connections, both close and distant, to keep us functioning and keep us engaged in a positive sociable manner.