With the coronavirus crisis keeping people physically apart from one another, simple gestures – such as sending a friendly email or sharing a useful resource – can inspire a sense of togetherness, says Stanford psychologist Greg Walton.

psychologist Gregory Walton

Psychologist Gregory Walton shows how people don’t have to be physically together to still feel a sense of togetherness. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

According to Walton’s research, small social cues like these can have a big impact. He found that when people are working alone, just being told that they are collaborating together on a task will boost motivation and job satisfaction.

Here, Walton explains some of that research and why feeling connected and staying motivated is important – now more than ever.

Walton is an associate professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Much of his research looks at the psychological processes that contribute to major social problems and how targeted, “wise,” interventions can help address them.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the workplace, with some organizations now operating remotely. How can people feel like they are still working together, even though they are remote from one another?

I think it’s important to remember that “togetherness” is both an objective experience and a psychological one. You can be physically apart but still feel together. That’s never been truer than now. We face a common challenge in coronavirus. And even though we must distance ourselves physically, we are working together to meet this challenge. We’re in it together, and that’s a powerful feeling.

That feeling of togetherness is important at work, too. In one series of studies, we tested the hypothesis that simple cues of working together would enhance people’s motivation. We gave Stanford undergrads very difficult or impossible tasks to complete on their own. But we manipulated whether they were told they were “working together” with peers. We also gave them a tip labeled as “from” another participant working on the same task “to” the participant. The content of the tip itself wasn’t helpful, but the framing helped create in participants a feeling of working together. Compared to students in the control group, who were told they were working on the same task but “separately” from others (and who got the same tip content but as a generic strategy), those in the working-together condition worked longer on the task, found it more interesting and enjoyable, and did better on it. It became more motivational when they experienced the task as something they were working on with others, rather than just on their own.

In other work, we’ve found the same kind of effect even among preschoolers. People draw motivation from the opportunity to work with others from early in life.

Do you have any suggestions for other ways to inspire togetherness among co-workers who are working remotely right now? 

For those fortunate to have work that can continue remotely, there are ways to maintain a sense of togetherness and common purpose. You might be all alone in your house or apartment, working to complete a project. But if you receive a kind email from a co-worker checking in and suggesting an idea or tool that might be helpful, that can sustain that feeling that you are working together to get a job done.

What are some common misperceptions about motivation that your research has uncovered?

I think one of the biggest misperceptions about motivation is that it is just about the self. It’s the idea that I’m motivated by what interests me, by my passion, by what I’m good at, or what I chose for myself.

There’s truth to that. But that’s incomplete. People are powerfully motivated by other people. When I think about what motivates a person to stay up late to finish a project, to come together to build a business or to pursue a scientific question, I think about the relationships people have with their co-workers and the commitments they have to make a difference for people in the world.

Earlier I described how small cues of working together can enhance motivation. Direct relationships between people are also important. We’ve found that cues as small as a shared birthday can create a minimal sense of social connectedness between people – and that can facilitate the social sharing of motivation. Again, toddlers show the same motivational gains when they feel like they are part of a group working together on something, as compared to when they have an individual identity relevant to that thing.

According to your research, why is togetherness important?

We are a social animal, and we’re built to be together. That’s why the feeling of loneliness, especially over long periods of time, is one of the most toxic experiences a person and a body can have. It’s a greater risk factor for death and disease than smoking.

A huge competitive advantage we have as a species is that we’re disposed to work with others on common tasks. We look to learn from each other and rapidly share innovations one person develops. If someone else finds a better way to build a widget, we can copy that. And we are motivated to collaborate, to share goals and put forth the effort to accomplish tasks together that no one person could ever do on their own. No person alone can build a multinational business, host a concert or develop a vaccine for coronavirus. But we can do those things together. Cultural development and change accelerate because we are able and motivated to work together.

What is your advice for these current times?

Let’s distance-socialize! Let’s keep each other in our thoughts, and reach out and communicate, and work together on the problems we face so we can make progress for our families, our communities, our country, and our world.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438; mdewitte@stanford.edu