By Emma Young
We usually think of loneliness as a condition with no redeeming features. Certainly, chronic loneliness is linked to poorer physical and psychological health, as well as unfavourable effects on personality. But an evolutionary model of loneliness, pioneered by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, US, proposes that it has an adaptive function, in that it:
- makes people want to do something about absent or unsatisfactory social relationships, and
- encourages people to focus on their own interests and welfare
The second proposed motivational force is the focus of a new study, led John Cacioppo, and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers predicted that feelings of loneliness would make people more self-centred – and this is exactly what they found.
Cacioppo and his colleagues analysed data on 229 people living in Cook County, Illinois, who came into the University of Chicago’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory for evaluation one day a year, for ten years. When the first data was collected, in 2002/3, the participants were aged 50-68, and came from the three largest racial/ethnic groups in the region: non-Hispanic White Americans, Black and African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Each year, the participants completed a package of questionnaires, including measures of depression and mood, the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale (20-items measure general loneliness and feelings of social isolation) and the Chronic Self-Focus scale (designed to measure self-centredness; asks participants to indicate the extent to which they agree with statements like “I think about myself a lot”).
The researchers found that higher levels of loneliness reported in one year were associated with higher levels of self-centredness the following year. Greater self-centredness was also associated with more loneliness the following year, but the correlation was weaker. This was after the influence of all the demographic variables were accounted for statistically.
The findings suggest loneliness and self-centredness are mutually reinforcing, although it’s possible the influence of some other factor(s) on both self-centredness and loneliness is responsible for this apparent link. However, current depressed mood, symptoms of depression and overall negative mood were not significantly correlated with self-centredness or loneliness at the next year’s evaluation, supporting the interpretation that loneliness and self-centreness have a direct reciprocal relationship.
“The small but apparent influence of self-centredness on loneliness is noteworthy because it reveals yet another factor that may contribute to the development and/or maintenance of loneliness in real-world contexts,” the researchers wrote.
Stopping that process could help combat loneliness into middle and older age, they think. “Targeting self-centredness as part of an intervention to lessen loneliness may help break a positive feedback loop that maintains or worsens loneliness over years.”