Is Loneliness Contagious?

Did singer Billy Joel have it right in his 1973 hit "Piano Man," when he said that sharing the drink we call loneliness is better than drinking alone?

One new piece of research suggests that the opposite, in fact, may be true.

Adding to what we already suspect about loneliness -- namely, that it is linked to such problems as depression, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and other health issues -- researchers now suspect that loneliness, like a bad cold, can spread.

"We have been looking at this topic for well over a decade," said John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and one of the study's authors. "Loneliness is a lot more serious in terms of consequences than people have thought."

He said another misperception is that loneliness is always the result of isolation; in fact, it may be the other way around.

"Loneliness begets you becoming more isolated," Cacioppo said.

Cacioppo was part of a team of researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of California San Diego and Harvard University who looked at the phenomenon. The researchers referred to data gathered from the mammoth Framingham Heart Study, which looked at thousands of people with the original aim of teasing apart the factors involved in heart disease.

But in this case, the team took a different angle on the data -- they wanted to find out how those who frequently reported themselves to be lonely affected those within their social circles.

What they discovered was that those who are lonely tend to share their loneliness with others. Worse, these groups of lonely people can eventually slide to the very edge of the social networks of which they are a part.

The findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The current research is not the first look Cacioppo and his colleagues have taken at loneliness. A couple of years ago, they published research suggesting that lonely people have, on the whole, more negative social interactions with others than those who are not lonely. So these lonely people, Cacioppo suggests, will be more likely to interpret their social interactions pessimistically.

Loneliness is Actually a Bad Cycle

"If I'm treating you badly, you can tell me to go take a hike," he said. "After time, as this happens more and more, I will be moved to the edge of the social network."

But negative interactions, Cacioppo said, can be contagious as well as cumulative -- and ultimately they can have profound effects on our position in society. The principle behind this contagious aspect of certain behaviors is known as the induction hypothesis. And Cacioppo said that judging from the results of the research; it applies to loneliness as well.

"When people feel lonely, they tend to be shyer, more anxious, more hostile, more socially awkward and lower in self-esteem," he said. "That, in turn, induces other individuals to act in negative ways. ... Emotional contagion could therefore contribute to the spread of loneliness to those with whom they interact."

Chris Segrin, head of the communication department at the University of Arizona, said these circles of friends on the periphery of social networks may also attract each other in a negative feedback loop of loneliness.

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