How to Break the Dangerous Cycle of Loneliness and how to resolve it, I recently spoke with John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University. University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo unveils his pioneering research on the startling effects of loneliness: a sense of isolation or social. John T. Cacioppo’s groundbreaking research topples one of the pillars of modern medicine and psychology: the focus on the individual as the unit of inquiry.

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P rofessor John Cacioppo has been studying the effects and causes of loneliness for 21 years. Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection examines the pathology and public health implications of the subject. You have been studying social connection and loneliness for more than two decades. How did you come to it as a subject? Back in the early 90s I had outlined the new field called social neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms within a defined social species.

Social species are those that create stable bonds, which have societies and cultures. Was it something that neuroscientists, with their emphasis on individual brains and cells, resisted? That was all well and good, but I quickly realised that theoretical arguments were not going to be enough on their own. I needed to have a convincing demonstration of social neuroscience. And you chose loneliness for that? Well, I was originally interested in social connections.

I argued we are defined by social connections, so what happens in the brain when you absent those?

I took one other step. There is a big difference between objective isolation and perceived isolation, and very quickly we learned that perceived isolation was loneliness, and that had not been studied. Some people have a great many connections but also feel lonely Yes. In fact, often times, fewer is better. Enough is always a hard term, but certainly one is hugely better than zero.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

Jojn is probably better than one. The true answer to your question is that it depends on context. Is it possible for that confidant to be a therapist, a professional person? Despite what economists say, that is not how we are designed.

We need mutual aided protection. You have produced some data that suggests loneliness is contagious. How does that work? It is actually stunningly simple as a mechanism. This process happens over time. I have become lonely for some reason and you are my friend. As a suddenly lonely person I am now more likely to loneloness with you cautiously, defensively, as a potential threat to me [because you might leave and add to my pain], and you recognise that so we are going to have more negative social reactions.

And over three or four years we are more likely to stop being friends. So that is one less confidant for both of us. So relationships have to go both ways to be beneficial? Because you interact less well with me as a neighbour, when you go to work we can see you are more likely to interact negatively with someone else.


And so it goes on. What we think we caciopo is often counter-productive for us. Loneliness is like an iceberg, we are conscious of the surface but there is a great deal more that is phylogenetically so deep that we cannot see it.

Obviously people living alone are not necessarily lonely, but it seems quite a fundamental shift in society. Does that help to explain a rise in these problems? Whether it leads to more loneliness is not clear.

When people move into a senior citizen home, say, those people are often more lonely because even if they were living on their own, they have been removed from a sense of family and friends and their neighbourhood. To what extent is that a universal trait? Loneliness is heritable, we have discovered. The sociality that is designed into our brains and DNA therefore has individual variation. In terms of the heritability of loneliness, we have taken that to mean disconnection is differentially painful.

Some people it hardly bothers at all, some people it disturbs so much as to become a pathology. I have a very simple example of that. If I ask you to think of the traits of a person who is evil, what jonn the three words you think of?

So actually your answers are consistent across age and across culture. What you see about them is that the good person cares about themselves primarily in relation to other people. Whereas the evil person cares first and lojeliness about themselves. But then society often seems set up to make us competitive, and we prize self-reliance and independence as qualities.

But there is nothing anti-competition about this. Think of the Olympics, a great event based on competition that has the effect of bringing people together.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Cooperation can equally be thought a universally good trait, lonelines think of, say, how Wall Street bankers colluded at the expense of all of the rest of us. So those qualities in themselves are not good or bad. Your research suggests loneliness as a major public health issue. How do you measure that and convince policymakers? There are a handful of things. First, what is the prevalence? That is one in four people who regularly feel lonely.

Then, what is the impact on health if you feel chronically lonely? Cacioppoo is about the same effect as obesity, though obesity does not make you as miserable as loneliness. And then we studied how it makes you more vulnerable. What is happening in the brains of lonely people, at the endocrinological level, at the genetic level and what is that doing to immunity and resistance to disease, what genes are being turned on and turned off, when the brain goes into this self-preservation mode?

For one thing, we found that loneliness decreases the effectiveness of sleep. You have sleep fragmentation and you always wake up tired.

The cumulative wear and tear is greater if you are lonely than if you are not. You cannot make a direct line to heart disease or cancer, but you can certainly see the effects on the immune system. What is the best way of mitigating that, of curing loneliness? Well, there were four major types of treatment we studied.


You take lonely people and you just put them together.

Loneliness Makes People More Selfish: Study — John Cacioppo

The second is social skills: Actually, this is again false. Just about everybody has good social skills to begin with, but when you experience loneliness you focus more and more on yourself, your brain engages in self-preservation.

You are not necessarily aware of that happening, but you become like the animal on the edge of the herd. If you feel vulnerable you often stop taking empathetic or compassionate positions and therefore you lose social skills. The third treatment is social support. That is not the answer either because getting out of loneliness takes reciprocal connections not one-directional lonelihess. If it were just about support, people would not feel lonely in hospital because they are surrounded by it.

But we know that people in hospital often feel johm lonely. The last treatment we looked at is changing how lonely people think about other people, having them understand what cacuoppo when their brain goes into this self-preservation mode.

And those kinds of treatments actually seem to work, although they have been applied only a few times. How do you go about jhn We retrained people, soldiers in this case, in reciprocity in communication: And then we taught them how that goes wrong.

We talk to them about different ways of probing this in an objective fashion.

Because chronically lonely people are less good at spotting those signs because they are in preservation mode, concentrating on their own pain and anxiety? And that can lead them to be further ostracised. It is particularly prevalent in the army where connections are vital.

There is a culture that can be very supportive but if you are weak, if you are olneliness unable to bear the load, consciously or subconsciously people lonelines to remove you from the group. We have talked a lot about being lonely without defining the opposite state. What is the opposite of loneliness? As I said, my original interest was about social connection, not social isolation, and I went through a lot of words trying to capture it and none of them quite did.

Because each word seemed designed to capture a particular kind of social connection, not the whole thing. I think kindness is a great way to start to deal with loneliness. But the answer is not just be happy and treat everyone well, because chronically lonely people may need more than that. Loneliness is the same way. It protects our social body. Chronic loneliness is harmful; but short-term loneliness can be positive and necessary because it highlights the need for social connections.

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