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We are a face-to-face species and new research shows that its in our DNA

For some time we have argued that the need for face-to-face contact is a uniquely human impulse that we ignore at our peril. A new study shows that this need may have its roots even more profoundly in our genetic makeup than we had thought.

I recall a rueful executive at a large corporation explaining to us that, ‘When we reorganized we were too macho about the need for people working together to be located with each other.’ The observation was more prescient than he realised. This manager shared a PA who was literally in another continent. He went on to explain that the leadership of his organization felt that, because of the latest technology, teams of collaborators could be located anywhere. Numerous studies have shown this assumption to be simply wrong.

Research among teams of academics working on research papers found that the success of those papers (measured in numbers of citations) showed a clear positive correlation with the levels of face-to-face collaboration among the teams working on them. Put it another way, where collaborating teams tended not to get together face to face, their research was significantly less likely to spur citations. Interestingly the use of face-time technologies, such as Skype etc. made little difference. It seems that our brains are not readily fooled. A face on a screen is not a surrogate for being with a real-life human.

In a study cited by Susan Pinker in her excellent book the Village Effect, pre-teen girls were put through a ‘stress condition’, in the form of a very tough cognitive test. Shortly after their levels of cortisol (the neuro-hormone associated with stress) were measured. The results were remarkable. Where the girls had a supportive face-to-face meeting with their mother, their levels of cortisol returned fairly rapidly to normal, more rapidly than when supportive messages came via a telephone call. A supportive text, on the other hand, had virtually no positive effect at all.

In a recent study, researchers Nichols Shakeshaft and Robert Plomin tested 375 pairs of identical twins and 549 non-identical twins, for their ability to recognise faces as well as their ability to recognize more neutral things such as cars, together with a test of general intelligence. What they found was quite illuminating. There is a very strong genetic component to our ability to recognize faces. This suggests that the way we respond to faces bestowed an evolutionary advantage on our forebears. What’s more, whereas the ability to recognize neutral shapes correlates strongly with general intelligence, the ability to recognize faces seems to be quite independent of general intelligence. In other words it’s not simply a bi-product of being generally smart, it seems to have evolved independently as an essential mental module.

Studies show that our empathy, compassion, trust and ethical behaviour towards others varies significantly according to whether or not we are physically present with them. If you want people to work better together, build in some face-to-face time.

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