People who are lonely tend to think only of themselves, many times disregarding the needs of others around them, reveals a new study.
In what the researchers describe as a vicious cycle, the connection between loneliness and self-centeredness feeds on itself to amplify feelings on both sides. That is, “loneliness increases self-centeredness and, to a lesser extent, self-centeredness also increases loneliness,” according to researchers from the University of Chicago.
“If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated,” said John Cacioppo, a Psychology professor and Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
Along with co-author Stephanie Cacioppo, the researchers stress the importance of understanding such a complicated web of feelings because people who are lonely are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health challenges and even have higher rates of mortality.
Loneliness is an important evolutionary development, note the researchers, who compare the feeling to the sense of physical pain.
“A variety of biological mechanisms have evolved that capitalize on aversive signals to motivate us to act in ways that are essential for our reproduction or survival,” report the researchers in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“Physical pain is an aversive signal that alerts us of potential tissue damage and motivates us to take care of our physical body,” they continue.
Loneliness is the emotional equivalent, the authors suggest. Feelings of loneliness are akin to a signal from the brain instructing people to ramp up their social connections.
“Humans evolved to become such a powerful species, in large part due to mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that proved adaptive in social interactions,” John Cacioppo said. “When we don’t have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare. That is, we become more self-centered.”
The novel way of thinking about loneliness is a recent development. Early research didn’t place much significance on loneliness as an emotional response. But the medical community’s greater understanding of the reasons driving loneliness – and how it can negatively impact humans – could provide a significant boost to overcoming poor social relations.
Becoming more self-centered can have benefits for lonely people in the short term, report the researchers, but the negative health outcomes build up over time, harming a person’s well-being.
“This evolutionarily adaptive response may have helped people survive in ancient times, but in contemporary society may well make it harder for people to get out of feelings of loneliness,” John Cacioppo said.
As social beings, humans are at their healthiest when working in concert with one another, added Stephanie Cacioppo.
“It isn’t that one individual is sacrificial to the other. It’s that together they do more than the sum of the parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your interests at the expense of others,” she said.
The emerging focus leaves the health care system with a big question.
“Now that we know loneliness is damaging and contributing to the misery and health care costs of America, how do we reduce it?” John Cacioppo asked.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.