Loneliness is a modern epidemic in need of treatment
In recent decades, social isolation has been recognised as a major risk to our health and longevity. It's twice as bad for you as being obese and nearly as bad as smoking. The rising number of people who say they are affected, across a wide range of ages, is startling. Yet obvious mechanisms – such as self-neglect – do not explain the full health toll. So what else is going on?
To answer this question it is worth noting that you can suffer the ill effects of loneliness even if you are not socially isolated. It is essentially an emotional state, and recognising the brain's role is vital to understanding much of the harm that can be caused.
Comedian Robin Williams made a salient observation in 2009: "I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone." Tracking large groups over time indicates that perceived social isolation carries its own risk for morbidity and mortality, independent of actual social isolation. What could drive this surprising effect?
The perception of isolation from others – of being on the social perimeter – is not only a cause of unhappiness, it also signals danger. Fish have evolved to swim to the middle of their group when predators approach, mice housed in social isolation show sleep disruptions and reduced slow-wave sleep and prairie voles isolated from their partners then placed in an open field explore their surroundings less and concentrate on predator evasion.
These behaviours reflect an increased emphasis on self-preservation when on the social perimeter. For instance, fish on the edge of a school are more likely to be attacked by predators because they are easier to isolate and prey upon. Such observations reflect a more general principle, that perceived social isolation in social animals activates neural, neuroendocrine and behavioural responses that promote short-term self-preservation. However, these responses bring a cost for long-term health and well-being.
The range of harmful neural and behavioural effects of perceived isolation documented in adults include increased anxiety, hostility and social withdrawal; fragmented sleep and daytime fatigue; increased vascular resistance and altered gene expression and immunity; decreased impulse control; increased negativity and depressive symptoms; and increased age-related cognitive decline and risk of dementia.
Sadly, to date, attempts to reduce loneliness have met with limited success. A meta-analysis of different strategies studied in randomised controlled trials, showed they had only a small effect. Among the four types of interventions examined, talking therapy that focused on inappropriate thought processes – a lack of self-worth, a lack of perspective and a skewed idea of how trustworthy others are and how they perceive you - had the largest impact. Social skills training, social support and increased opportunities for social contact were much less effective.
This finding is consistent with the idea that perceived social isolation can still put us in self-preservation mode – a hangover from ancient times when isolation would have left us very vulnerable to attack – which can lead to harmful thought processes and behaviour that is at odds with thriving in a modern society.
There is no pharmacological treatment for loneliness, although animal research is shedding light on this possibility. Given the scale of the problem today, the hunt for better treatments of all types deserves high priority.
John Cacioppo is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director of the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience
Stephanie Cacioppo is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience and director of the High-Performance Electrical Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine
Why You Should Talk to Strangers
Research finds surprising benefits from connecting with new people.
Published on November 19, 2014 by Art Markman, Ph.D. in Ulterior Motives
I fly a lot. I have a typical routine on the plane. I pull out something to read or perhaps an iPad to watch a movie. I do my work. I don’t generally engage in much conversation with the person sitting next to me, though sometimes I end up in a long conversation, and invariably, the conversation is great fun.
An interesting question is whether my travel would be more enjoyable if I engaged in more conversations with people I met on the plane? This issue was addressed in a fascinating paper by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder that appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
In two field experiments, they demonstrated that people generally avoid having conversations with strangers while commuting. One study queried train commuters; a second, bus commuters. During their commute, some participants were asked to imagine that they were told to have a conversation with another commuter they didn’t already know. Those in a second group were asked to imagine that they were told to commute without talking to anyone. A third group got no instructions. Participants rated how much they thought they would enjoy their commute as well as how productive they thought they would be.
In this study, participants imagining they had to talk to another person thought they would enjoy the commute less than those who imagined sitting in silence. Those imagining they had to have a conversation also assumed they would be less productive on the trip than those who imagined sitting in silence. The control group came out in between on both measures.
A second set of field studies actually had commuters on the train and bus engage in conversations—or not. Members of a third group were given no instructions. Afterward, participants rated how much they enjoyed the commute as well as how productive they were. Participants also filled out a personality inventory.
Strikingly, participants who were asked to have a conversation with someone else on the train or bus really did have conversations. And these participants enjoyed their ride much more than those who had been instructed not to engage with other people, as well as those in the control condition (who also tended not to engage in conversations). Interestingly, participants in all conditions rated themselves as about equally productive.
If conversations like this are actually so enjoyable, why do people engage in them so rarely?
One other study asked commuters a variety of questions and found that they underestimate how willing other people would be to talk to them. So commuters feel that they are much more interested having people choose to talk to them than other people are in being talked to. As a result, people avoid striking up conversations for fear of bothering another person.
Another study found that some people are able to predict their enjoyment of engaging in these random conversations. This study looked at people taking taxis leaving from an airport. Some participants were actually asked to engage in a conversation with the driver or to enjoy the solitude. As in the other studies, those who had a conversation with the driver enjoyed the ride more than those who did not.
In a second study, participants predicted their enjoyment. Those who routinely engage in conversations with the driver recognized that they enjoy the ride more when they talk than when they don’t. People who rarely converse with the driver did not recognize that they would enjoy their ride more if they talked with the driver.
A final study examined another possibility: Perhaps the people who initiate conversations enjoy them, but those who do not initiate the conversations enjoy them less. That is, maybe the conversation is only positive for the initiator. This study was done in a psychology lab. Participants were waiting for the study to start. Some were instructed either to engage in a conversation with a second participant in the waiting room or to avoid having a conversation. Afterward, both participants were asked about how much they enjoyed the wait. Both the participant who initiated the conversation and the non-initiator enjoyed the wait more when they had a conversation.
Putting this all together, then, it seems like most of us are missing out on a big opportunity to enjoy our life just a little more. Many of us travel on trains, planes, buses, and taxis. In those settings, we generally elect to protect ourselves from interactions with other people. Yet, these data suggest that most of us would enjoy ourselves more if we had conversations with the strangers who sit near us rather than walling ourselves off.
These findings are particularly interesting, because technology makes it easier than ever to avoid connecting with strangers. Almost everywhere you go, people are engaged with smart phones and tablets. Because of those devices, we avoid connecting with the real live people sitting next to us—and it seems that we are missing out by doing so.
Being Alone Together
Why are humans so reluctant to communicate in public with strangers?
Published on August 4, 2014 by Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. in Media Spotlight
Why are humans so reluctant to communicate in public?
Yes, we're all social creatures with friends and family that we interact with on a daily basis, but what happens when you're surrounded by strangers? Every day, we find ourselves in public settings with countless people around us. Whether it's shopping in a mall, being on a crowded subway, walking down a busy street, or even in an elevator fillled with people. How social are we then?
Once in a long while, we may strike up a conversation with someone while waiting to board a plane or in a doctor's office, though this tends to be rare. More often than not, we consider any attempt to talk to a stranger as being awkward, and even unwelcome depending on how uncomfortable this makes us feel (especially if you're a woman being approached by a strange man). For the most part, the strangers around us go on being strangers.
At least in terms of face-to-face interaction. Communicating with strangers online is a critical part of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Casual conversations that might seem unthinkable in a crowded room seem much easier when there is no physical contact involved. I have numerous Facebook and Twitter acquaintances that I interact with on a regular basis that I've never met in person and I am hardly unique.
But why are ordinarily social humans so unsocial in situations involving face-to-face interaction? Do we prefer being isolated when physically surrounded by strangers? Or do we feel that the consequences of connecting with people we don't know are too risky to want to take a chance? Research studies looking at how we are affected by social interactions typically find that connecting with people who are close to us (friends and family) are more important than how often we interact with strangers. Since we tend not to regard strangers, or even distant acquaintances, as being a good source of social support (except in extraordinary circumstances), we're less likely to try interacting with them.
Or is it simply the physical location that makes a difference? A survey of 203 participants using Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk marketplace were asked about the likelihood that they would talk to a friend or a stranger in a waiting room, a train, an airplane, or a cab. Virtually all the participants agreed that they would talk to a friend in any one of those settings. For strangers however, the numbers were very different. Ranging from 93 percent saying they would avoid talking in a waiting room to 51 percent saying they would avoid talking in a cab, most people apparently prefer to sit in silence rather than chatting with a stranger.
A new research study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General presents the results of nine field and laboratory experiments exploring why people apparently prefer to remain isolated among strangers. Conducted by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder of the University of Chicago, the experiments explored some of the underlying beliefs that might explain this strange need for solitude in public places.
In the first experiment, two research assistants approached commuters at a Homewood, Illinois Metra station. That particular train line was chosen since it was the first train of the day and was nearly empty during the times when the experiment was conducted. The one hundred and eighteen commuters who agreed to participate were assigned to one of three conditions. The commuters in the connection condition were given the following instruction: "“Please have a conversation with a new person on the train today. Try to make a connection. Find out something interesting about him or her and tell them something about you. The longer the conversation, the better. Your goal is to try to get to know your community neighbor this morning.” Participants assigned to the solitude condition were instructed to keep to themselves and make no attempt to communicate with anyone. As for the participants in the control condition, they were simply told to act as they normally would.
All commuters were given an experimental survey and a brief personality survey in a stamped and addressed envelope which they would complete and send afterwards. The survey asked participants in the connection condition to describe their attempt at communicating and who they communicated with while all partipants rated how they felt after the train ride (whether or not communicating with others or staying in solitude made them feel more productive). As a comparison, the second experiment matched the first one closely except that the participants were asked to imagine they were interacting or traveling in solitude. As before, all participants completed questionnaires measuring mood in the different conditions.
The point of the two experiments was to compare how interaction vs. solitude actually affected mood as opposed to how people imagined they would feel in either of the two conditions. What the researchers found was that people who actually connected with strangers experienced a much more positive commute than the ones who just sat in silence. For the second experiment however, participants predicted the exact opposite. This suggests that most people misunderstand the psychological consequences of being socially engaged with strangers. Since commuting tends to be one of the least pleasant experiences in an average person's day, spending it by talking to strangers instead of sitting in silence may be a good way to make that commute enjoyable.
And these results are hardly unique to commuter trains. The experiments were repeated on public transit, taxicabs, and in a laboratory setting and the outcoe was largely the same in all cases. Though people often predict that sitting alone would be more enjoyable than talking to strangers, the opposite almost always turned out to be true. Personality testing showed no consistent difference in terms of who was more likely to enjoy interacting with strangers, it just appears to be a social convention we all tend to follow when sitting alone.
So why are people so reluctant to talk to strangers? While some people may prefer to spend their commuting time working or engaging in other productive activities, experimental results suggest that people who connect with strangers are no less productive than the ones who sit in silence. One possible explanation may simply be that we stay silent because of the belief that other people are not interested in connecting. Since we see other people sitting in silence, we tend to do the same though this may vary widely across different cultures. Also, we may be afraid of the negative consequences of trying to interact with strangers, especially if the stranger is someone of a different gender or ethnic background.
Of course, some strangers may well prefer not to communicate. Female commuters are certainly likely to be suspicious of strange men attempting to strike up a conversation with them, and with good reason. Epley and Schoeder recognized that people can be reluctant to interact with strangers for a variety of reasons but are usually pleasantly surprised to discover that making the effort can be enjoyable. Though these conversations are, by necessity, brief since they can only last as long as the commute lasts, they can be a useful way of breaking the commuting routine as well as help you overcome the shyness that keeps us quiet.
And there are other benefits to reaching out to strangers. Not only does it help us feel better about ourselves, but prosocial behaviour can help benefit other people as well. By working against the "conspiracy of silence" that seems to affect commuters on a regular basis, communicating in public can help people recognize what they have in common. Even if we do occasionally run into people who don't feel like talking, striking up a conversation with the person next to you on a bus or train often make us more willing to try again in future.
So don't be afraid to speak up when you're surrounded by strangers, it can be more enjoyable than you think.
Perhaps this is the ultimate predicament before us. How do we deal with the fragmentation of our lives? When society is fragmented, the powerful are pitted against the powerless. Injustice, inequity and even violence result. Our task must be to journey towards interdependence and union through understanding and compassion.
The Buddha’s answer to overcoming the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death was in part to cultivate the awareness that we are not independently existing, separate individuals – but are interdependent, composite beings.
Can hugs make you healthier?
New research sheds light on the major health benefits of social support
In their most recent study, Cohen and colleagues used questionnaires to assess how socially supported each of their 406 study volunteers felt, and used daily telephone interviews to tally up the interpersonal conflicts that had happened that day. The researchers recorded one more thing that hadn’t been studied before: the number of hugs each volunteer had received.
With a description of each participant’s social milieu and number of hugs in hand, Cohen then put participants’ disease immunity to the test. In exchange for a healthy sum, participants agreed to have nasal drops containing an infectious dose of a common cold virus deposited in their noses. Participants were then quarantined in a hotel room to see to what extent they would develop signs and symptoms of a viral infection. To assess volunteers’ response to the “challenge virus,” Cohen’s group used objective measures such as whether or not anything came out of participants’ noses, and if so, how much it weighed.
The study revealed some powerful effects of social support and hugs on participants’ ability to fight off an infection. Both social support and hugs buffered the harmful effects of stress on participants’ susceptibility to illness. That is, stressed-out people who got more social support and hugs were less likely to get sick than stressed-out people who got less support and fewer squeezes. The findings suggest that hugs are a potent delivery system for social support. Cohen found an effect from “make-up” hugs, which were given at the end of a conflict, but an even a stronger protective effect from hugs that were given “just because.”
Of course, providing social support can be a time-consuming affair, and not everyone is willing to do it. On the phone with Cohen, I refrained from quoting the line from the 1999 comedy “American Pie,” where nice-guy Oz tries explaining the art of being sensitive and supportive to his self-absorbed friend:
Oz: “You ask them questions, and listen to what they have to say and shit.”
Stifler: “I dunno, man, that sounds like a lot of work.”
Stifler’s not alone. This can be a common problem among men. Cohen pointed out: “Women tend to be the providers more often than men, but may not be more effective.” So I went digging into the literature and found a few hug studies whose findings literally made me sick, like this one. There’s a perceived stigma surrounding physical contact, and some men seriously need to get over it. I could have asked Cohen if the study suggests a way out of Stifler’s dilemma: Does one good hug get you out of there more quickly? Is a hug worth a thousand words? I can imagine him telling me that I’m missing the point.
I ran this by Cohen, who agreed that hugs spread germs but then pointed me to another study that looked at parents’ susceptibility to the common cold. Using the old routine of viral nose drops and quarantine on 795 parents, the researchers found that parents who had one or two kids were 48 percent less likely to get sick than non-parents, while parents who had three or more kids were 61 percent less likely to get sick. Now for the kicker. Seeing Malina’s argument coming, Cohen and company measured the amount of virus-specific antibodies found in each parent’s blood and found a benefit of parenthood that was independent of antibody levels. That is, once the beneficial effect of having the antibodies was controlled for, there seemed to be an additional protective effect of just having the little angels in your life.
The Social Cure
Feeling a sense of belonging is incredibly important to our physical and mental health, a principle that the psychologists Catherine Haslam and Alex Haslam - now based at the University of Queensland, Australia - have dubbed "the social cure". In one of their most recent demonstrations of the effect, the Haslams and their co-authors investigated the consequences of collective decision-making for elderly care home residents. Those residents given the chance to make decisions as a group about lounge refurbishment subsequently showed benefits in terms of cognitive abilities and satisfaction with the home, as compared with residents in a no-intervention control condition, or others who had the decisions made for them. The Haslams believe the benefits of the group work arose from feelings of camaraderie and solidarity.
Members of socially disadvantaged groups often experience societal devaluation, material hardship, and restricted opportunities, especially during critical life-course transitions. In this study, we investigate whether what we term ‘bonding identities’, that is identities connecting the self to significant persons whether in terms of social relationships (e.g., family relations) or in terms of categorical collective identities, help individuals negotiate structural constraints on life-course opportunities. We develop and test a model according to which greater perceived barriers to one's life projects are psychologically harmful. We then test whether bonding identities function as a buffer against these stressors' negative psychological effects. Data were collected with a standardized questionnaire from pre-apprentices, apprentices, and young employees in two institutions (N = 365). Results confirm that perceiving barriers to one's life project was harmful for self-esteem. However, for participants who defined themselves in terms of bonding identities, greater perceived barriers did not decrease their perceived coping efficacy and were less harmful for their self-esteem. These findings point to the empowering role of bonding identities (and the social relationships that they imply) for disadvantaged group members.
The study, undertaken by NCCR LIVES PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne Mouna Bakouri, found that their self-esteem appeared to be less damaged as a result of stronger sense of efficacy.
Previous research has shown how the strength of group identification reduces the feeling of social devaluation. In this paper Mouna Bakouri argued for the “empowering role of bonding identities” when facing barriers to one’s life projects. She suggested that these bonds stem not only from collective identities such as the ethnic origin or the occupational status, but also from relational identities based on family and friends. Comparing individuals who consider these kinds of identities as most important in their self-definition with individuals who chose a more personal self-definition (like a personality trait or activity) this paper found that connectedness can have a buffering effect on efficacy beliefs and against life-course stressors.
Transition periods often highlight structural constraints. This is particularly the case between adolescence and adulthood and whilst entering into the labour market. This study focused on 365 individuals in Switzerland aged 15 to 30. This sample was composed of young employees, apprentices, and pre-apprentices who were still looking for an apprenticeship at the end of their compulsory schooling. A majority of pre-apprentices had an immigrant background versus only 11 per cent of the employees, reflecting the structural hardship faced by non-nationals in the transition to work.
The participants were invited to complete a questionnaire which addressed their financial worries, level of self-esteem, perceived coping efficacy, perceived barriers and project appraisals. Using an adapted version of the “Who Am I” questionnaire, the survey also collected data on the participants’ most meaningful definition of their identity, which was then coded in order to distinguish between individuals with a bonded self and those with an un-bonded self.
Analysis showed that participants from socially disadvantaged groups perceived higher barriers and that these barriers negatively impacted their self-esteem.
However, when perceived barriers were high, people with bonded identities maintained significantly better levels of self-esteem than individuals who defined themselves at a personal level. This may be explained by the positive role a bonding identity can play in protecting self-esteem which can be linked to an enhanced belief in coping efficacy.
Mouna Bakouri concluded: “The existence of social bonds, independent of the source of those bonds, seems to be a key resilience factor when one’s capacity of action is structurally constrained. The results of this study have a crucial implication for interventions with youth aimed at strengthening their sense of agency and efficacy to negotiate critical life-course transitions.”
This contradicts the “liberal credo” of individualism, suggesting that interventions “should work with group identities and not against them.”
Full paper title: 'Coping with Structural Disadvantage: Overcoming Negative Effects of Perceived Barriers through Bonding Identities'. Authors: Mouna Bakouri, Christian Staerklé.
Человек попадает на небеса и около райских врат встречает Господа. Господь приветствует его и спрашивает: «Есть ли у тебя последнее желание, сын мой, прежде чем на вечность ты попадешь в рай?» «Да, — отвечает человек, — я бы хотел взглянуть на ад, чтобы еще больше оценить свою счастливую судьбу». Господь говорит: «Отлично», щелкает пальцами, и в то же мгновение они оказываются в аду. Перед ними, насколько хватает глаз, простирается стол, уставленный самыми изысканными и роскошными яствами, а по обе стороны стола сидят печальные люди, умирающие от голода.
Человек спрашивает Господа: «Почему эти люди умирают от голода?» На что Господь отвечает: «Здесь все должны есть трехметровыми палочками». «Это очень жестоко», — с состраданием замечает человек. Господь снова щелкает пальцами, и они перемещаются обратно в рай.
Войдя в рай, человек с удивлением видит практически аналогичную картину: роскошный стол, простирающийся до самого горизонта, но все сидящие за столом люди счастливы и сыты. Человек поворачивается и спрашивает у Бога: «Чем люди едят здесь? Наверное, у них иные приборы?» «Нет, сын мой, — отвечает Господь, — здесь все тоже едят при помощи трехметровых палочек». Тогда человек в полном изумлении восклицает: «Как же такое возможно? Я не понимаю!»
«В раю мы кормим друг друга», — отвечает Господь.