Stress Serves to Help Human Bonding

In Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (as if you didn’t know), readers are introduced to the three protagonists of the seven-book series; Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger.

Harry and Ron get on well immediately, but Hermione remains an outsider at first. She is disliked by her classmates, who think she is a bossy know-it-all, and Harry and Ron are downright mean to her. That is until the moment when the three of them risk their lives to fight off a troll together.

As Rowling writes to conclude that chapter, “there are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a [12]-foot mountain troll is one of them.” The trio then becomes inseparable.

Though the story is fiction, Rowling touches upon a realistic truth by developing Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s relationship in that way: how high-stress situations can facilitate strong bonds between people.

As psychology theorist Abraham Maslow posited in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” humans have a fundamental need to emotionally connect with one another. Recent research suggests that need might actually be critical to our health.

In one study, researchers found that people who do not have strong social networks show a significantly greater morbidity than those who do. Another showed that subjects with strong social ties exhibited a 50 percent chance of living longer, on average, than those without.

Translation: friends keep us alive. Thus we are primed to seek out relationships even, and perhaps especially, in high-stress environments.

For example, in 2012 German researchers hypothesized that the “flight-or-fight” response–which is when individuals either flee the scene or protect themselves when facing danger–was not humans’ sole instinctual reaction to stress, even though it was the one most documented. They compared the interactions between subjects that were divided into two groups. One group experienced a stressor, while the other did not. They found that the stressor didn’t trigger the “antisocial” fight-or-flight response, but rather what they called the “tend-to-befriend” sentiment, or, an increased impulse to befriend one another.

A joint study from the University of Virginia and The University of Chicago examined what happens when people experience feelings of “loss of control,” a common stress trigger. They called the findings of their research the “karmic-investment process.” When a person is facing the outcome of an event that is important to them but that they have little actual control over (like an acceptance letter to school or medical test results) they are more likely to help others. The researchers examined this tendency across four different scenarios, concluding that when people help others they feel more karmatically determined to receive a positive outcome in their own lives.

Author, scholar, and public speaker Brene Brown, who studies human connection at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, further explored feeling out of control. In a 2010 TED Talk, Brown explained the ways in which vulnerability is at the core of it, as well as most uncomfortable human emotions, such as fear, doubt, and shame.

Brown talked about how she had a personal vendetta to analyze, and thereby conquer, human vulnerability. Through this challenge, she instead discovered that being vulnerable is actually a crucial ingredient to human bonding.

“And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting,” she said.

Now, we’re not saying to go grab your worst enemy and stand in oncoming traffic. There are limits to the amount of stress a person can healthily endure. What’s more, high-stress bonding doesn’t always have a positive outcome. Sometimes people under intense circumstances will lapse into a “mob” or “herd” mentality, which is when members of a group adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the group at large, and think less as individuals. The Salem Witch Trials are often cited as an example of mob mentality, as are the crowds at a concert or sporting event.

But a recent study did find that even weak interactions with others increases our sense of belonging and, ultimately, our happiness–so maybe skydiving with them isn’t a bad idea.

Featured photo courtesy of CollegeDegrees360.