Loneliness contagious? An oxymoron? (UPDATED 5/2013)

It seems contradictory.  How can the lonely (who are largely outside of social networks) get their loneliness through social networks?

It makes sense when you think of people’s movements in social networks over some period of time.  The lonely may not always have been lonely, but gradually, they tend to cluster together on the periphery of social networks, suggesting that the social connections with other lonely people exacerbates any de facto loneliness they experience.  That the lonely would be somewhere on the periphery of social networks is somewhat tautological, but that the lonely would cluster together at the periphery is not, and is surprising.

The study is by well-respected researchers (psychologist John Cacioppo from U. Chicago, Nick Christakis from Harvard’s School of Public Health, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UCSD) and will appear  in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The Washington Post notes:

Although the study did not examine how loneliness spreads, Cacioppo said other research has provided clues. People who feel lonely tend to act in negative ways toward those they do have contact with, perpetuating the behavior and the emotion, he said.

“Let’s say for whatever reason — the loss of a spouse, a divorce — you get lonely. You then interact with other people in a more negative fashion. That puts them in a negative mood and makes them more likely to interact with other people in a negative fashion and they minimize their social ties and become lonely,” Cacioppo said.

[The research comprising almost 5,000 people  interviewed every two years between 1991 and 2001] showed that having a social connection to a lonely person increased the chances of developing feelings of loneliness. A friend of a lonely person was 52 percent more likely to develop feelings of loneliness by the time of the next interview, the analysis showed. A friend of that person was 25 percent more likely, and a friend of a friend of a friend was 15 percent more likely.The effect was most powerful for a friend, followed by a neighbor, and was much weaker on spouses and siblings, the researchers found. Loneliness spread more easily among women than men, perhaps because women were more likely to articulate emotions, Cacioppo said.

The researchers said the effect could not be the result of lonely people being more likely to associate with other lonely people because they showed the effect over time. “It’s not a birds-of-a-feather-flock-together effect,” Christakis said.

See “Feeling Lonely?  Chances Are You’re Not Alone” (Washington Post, Rob Stein, 12/1/09)

See also blog posts on the contagion effect of happiness, smoking, and obesity.

See article “The Science of Loneliness” (New Republic, Judith Shulevitz, May 2013)

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