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From face-to-face to face-to-screen: Social animals interacting in a digital world

Project description

From social creatures to "digital" beings

As humans, we are hardwired to interact with others, ensuring our survival as “social creatures.” The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how we interact. Face-to-face connections have merged with virtual interactions. More and more people are working and studying remotely, and accessing healthcare over the internet. In this context, the ERC-funded SODI project will investigate how this change is affecting our social interactions. Specifically, the project will compare face-to-face with face-to-screen (live) interactions. Using a multimethod, biopsychological approach, SODI will test whether face-to-screen interactions activate socially relevant hormonal systems to the same extent as face-to-face contact. Moreover, this project strives towards “socially enriching” interactions in the digital space by enabling mutual eye gaze, physical contact and social odours.


Over millions of years, human survival has crucially depended on rapport building, seeking others’ social support, and sharing resources in groups. This social context has created constant evolutionary pressure to develop specific biological systems geared to interacting face-to-face with physically present others. For just a few years, we have been living in a rapidly developing digital world where interactions across society (education, friendship, health care) shift to face-to-screen interaction – strongly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. How does this core change affect our social interactions? In SODI, I will contrast face-to-face with face-to-screen “live” interactions of many individuals, taking a multi-method, biopsychological approach. According to my theoretical working model, face-to-screen interactions fail to entirely engage specific, socially relevant hormonal systems (oxytocin, μ-opioids, testosterone), which evolved to process context-dependent stimuli from face-to-face contact (mutual eye gaze, physical contact, social odour). Consequently, hormone-mediated beneficial social effects should be attenuated, while adding social stimuli should ameliorate this difference. To test my model’s assumptions, I will tackle three objectives. How do face-to-screen interactions differ from face-to-face ones? Can we “socially enrich” face-to-screen interactions by adding previously lacking social stimuli? Does experimentally modulating hormone levels in the brain affect differences between face-to-face and face-to-screen interactions? In a radically innovative approach, my research combines experimental-psychological interaction paradigms, neurophysiological and subjective measures, and hormone administration to understand the merits and flaws of interacting in a digital reality. Moreover, my project aims to strike new paths for “socially enriching” face-to-screen interactions, thereby unfolding the full potential of the digital (r)evolution.


Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 499 377,50
79098 Freiburg

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Baden-Württemberg Freiburg Freiburg im Breisgau, Stadtkreis
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 499 377,50

Beneficiaries (1)