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Social interaction, social status, and mental health and how they were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as a natural experiment of social isolation.

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Gormley, Siobhan 


Affective difficulties are some of the most prevalent health problems worldwide and can lead to severe disruptions in daily functions. Socio-evolutionary theories stress the importance of social groups and status for mental well-being. The work presented in this thesis aims to further our understanding of the link between social interaction, status and mental health. Social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic provided a natural experiment of what can happen in cases of extreme reductions in socialisation. We attempted to investigate this by asking three major questions. First, is perceived status associated with, and predictive of, depressive and anxious symptomology? (Chapters 3, 4, 5). Second are affective symptoms and perceptions of involuntary subordination associated with individual differences in perception of others and behaviour? (Chapters 3 & 4). Finally, has the COVID- 19 pandemic lead to changes in mental health symptoms (Chapter 5), and are there any predictors of individual differences in COVID-19-specific behaviour? (Chapter 6). To do this I used a mixture of survey and experimental designs, along with cross-sectional and longitudinal research. We found strong consistent evidence for the association between low perceptions of status, measured by involuntary subordination and depressive and anxious symptoms (Chapters 3, 4, 5). There was also evidence for the predictive nature of involuntary subordination providing some support for a causal relationship (Chapter 5). Affective symptoms were associated with individual differences in general perceptions of social status (Chapter 3) and showed indirect effects on behavioural responses to socially defeating situations (Chapter 4). Sustained increases in anxiety, involuntary subordination, and interpersonal hyper-sensitivity were observed during the COVID-19 pandemic when compared to pre-pandemic levels, and involuntary subordination showed consistent predictive power (Chapter 5). Behaviourally executive function and depression were not predictors of social distance behaviours during the pandemic in adolescents. We did see a significant effect of anxiety when depression symptoms were controlled for; however, this finding was not robust. Future research should aim to investigate the causal relationship of social status and groups on affect, utilising experimental designs, neuroimaging, and new statistical techniques. Cross-cultural research is also needed if we are to establish the evolutionary nature of these constructs.





Dalgleish, Timothy


affective disorders, anxiety, cognitive neuroscience, depression, psychology, social evolution


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
MRC (2114206)