Winter isolation in Antarctica and interpersonal relationships among station members

Very recently, the media were flooded by the story of a polar scientist who stabbed a colleague at an Antarctic Station. The person who was stabbed had successively spoiled the end of several books to the stabber. Situations like this one are a very clear example of the psychological challenge of living and working for long periods of time in an isolated, confined, and extreme environment. For the teams of scientists and logistics who are going to spend the winter in an Antarctic station, the interpersonal relationships that happen among the people living inside the base are fundamental to guarantee the group’s well-being and the accomplishment of the daily tasks.

However, the way these interpersonal relationships evolve over the whole duration of the campaign seems to undergo a significant change about halfway through the mission. Indeed, the analysis of the interpersonal behaviors of 23 individuals who spent 14 months at a station in Antarctica suggests that during the first half of the campaign there is a tendency to increase and improve interpersonal relationships within the base, and that from the beginning of the second half of the campaign there is a deterioration in the quality of interpersonal relationships that were already established. If on the one hand the members of the base demonstrate that they need to relate to and feel connected to other people, on the other hand they want to do so without having to interact much or establish a stronger affective connection.

Curiously, this deterioration or cooling of interpersonal relationships does not necessarily happen because people within the base develop bad relationships and conflict. What seems to happen is that the need to establish deeper interpersonal relationships, in which individuals talk about their feelings or feel cherished decreases over time. A kind of mechanism of adaptation to life in isolation. As a consequence, if on the one hand the interaction between base members becomes less frequent, on the other hand each individual seems to become more competent to manage their own relationships and this is critical to the success of the campaign.


Source: Paul, F. J., Mandal, M. K., Ramachandran, K., & Panwar, M. R. (2010). Interpersonal behavior in an isolated and confined environment. Environment and Behavior, 42(5), 707-717. doi: 10.1177/0013916509336889

Author: Pedro Quinteiro


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