Is Loneliness Contagious?

"You might think back to when you were in middle school and there might have been a group of social outcasts who hung out," Segrin said. "They're not brought together for some sort of affinity of each other; they're brought together because they're forced out by others."

In that same way, Segrin said this new study shows lonely people tend to drift together in adulthood, too. However, rather than provide solace, Segrin said loneliness may beget loneliness.

"It's called emotional contingent, where I catch your emotional state," Segrin said. "If I'm hanging out with you and you're bringing me down, maybe what I need to do is think about a new circle of friends."

Segrin admitted that it's easier said than done, but in light of the new study he thinks it's only more evidence that lonely people need to take a chance with new faces.

"The lonely people might be trapped in this state of loneliness in part because of their social situation," Segrin said. "It's a matter of finding the wherewithal to take chances with people."

Mark Leary, a member of the American Psychological Association, agreed that loneliness may beget loneliness, but said he doesn't think that lonely people are aware of the slippery slope.

Falling into Loneliness: Accident or Not?

"I don't think it's conscious at all. I don't think people say, 'I'm lonely, people don't accept me, to the heck with it all,'" said Leary, a professor of psychology at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"What's more true is that when people become lonely, they become somewhat more standoffish and distant," he said.

According to Leary, laboratory studies have clearly shown that lonely people have more problems making conversation. They are often self-absorbed, speak only about themselves or limit their conversation to a narrow range of topics only they find interesting.

"They just don't engage other people as much, they don't inquire other people, they don't follow up on what people have said," Leary said. "Not only is loneliness contagious it's also self perpetuating."

In turn, the people in a conversation with a lonely person start to feel cold and turned off.

"I always hate to use that word contagious, but in principal, yeah it can spread," Leary said.

So if loneliness does indeed spread, what can we do to keep it at bay?

Cacioppo said the answer to this may lie in changing the way we think about loneliness; specifically, he said we should view loneliness as a biological signal akin to hunger and thirst.

"We rely on others to survive and prosper," Cacioppo said. "Loneliness infects you in a way to make you want to connect with others, but also to become socially very wary."

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