Is Loneliness Contagious?

Your lonely feelings can drag others into a cycle of solitude, researchers say.

November 30, 2009, 6:25 PM

Dec. 1, 2009— -- 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.

"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."