Category Archives: John Cacioppo

How loneliness kills

Flick/cc/ewixx

Flickr/cc/ewixx

Judith Shulevitz, in the May 13, 2013 New Republic has an interesting read “The Lethality of Loneliness.”

Excerpt:

“Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people….

“To the degree that loneliness has been treated as a matter of public concern in the past, it has generally been seen as a social problem—the product of an excessively conformist culture or of a breakdown in social norms. Nowadays, though, loneliness is a public health crisis. The standard U.S. questionnaire, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, asks 20 questions that run variations on the theme of closeness—“How often do you feel close to people?” and so on. As many as 30 percent of Americans don’t feel close to people at a given time….

“What He [God] wanted is for us not to be alone. Or rather, natural selection favored people who needed people. Humans are vastly more social than most other mammals, even most primates, and to develop what neuroscientists call our social brain, we had to be good at cooperating. To raise our children, with their slow-maturing cerebral cortexes, we needed help from the tribe. To stoke the fires that cooked the meat that gave us the protein that sustained our calorically greedy gray matter, we had to organize night watches. But compared with our predators, we were small and weak. They came after us with swift strides. We ran in a comparative waddle.

“So what would happen if one of us wandered off from her little band, or got kicked out of it because she’d slacked off or been caught stealing? She’d find herself alone on the savanna, a fine treat for a bunch of lions. She’d be exposed to attacks from marauders. If her nervous system went into overdrive at perceiving her isolation, well, that would have just sent her scurrying home. [John] Cacioppo thinks we’re hardwired to find life unpleasant outside the safety of trusted friends and family, just as we’re pre-programmed to find certain foods disgusting. “Why do you think you are ten thousand times more sensitive to foods that are bitter than to foods that are sweet?” Cacioppo asked me. “Because bitter’s dangerous!”

The article, well worth a read, discusses issues like that only about half of loneliness is hereditary, what areas of the brain light up when we are socially snubbed (the same portion that registers physical pain, i.e., the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), what has been learned about the impact of the absence of loving parents on loneliness from the isolating experience of Russian orphans; and how Nobelist James Heckman is finding that many low SES children bear loneliness scars from poor parenting growing up (that is akin to the impact found by Steve Suomi and Harry Harlow on isolated rhesus macaques).

See other posts about the negative health effects and contagion of  loneliness and social isolation here.

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)

Only the lonely die young (UPDATED 5/2013)

(picture by moann)

(picture by moann)

John Cacioppo (from Univ. of Chicago) has a new interesting trade book out (with William Patrick) called Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

His interview with the Boston Globe appeared in the Sunday Magazine over the weekend. Among his quotes/observations:

  • “Social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking,”
  • Loneliness is not simply a matter of being alone.  The lonely often spend as much time with others as the less lonely.  The key difference is that the lonely have the feeling that any real connection with others is lacking.
  • Loneliness is half heritable and half environmental, but the heritable part seems to be associated with how much disconnection hurts.
  • “In 1984, the question was asked [in the GSS survey], ‘How many confidants do you have?’ And the most frequent answer was three. That question was repeated 20 years later, in 2004, and the most frequent response was zero.”

Cacioppo and Patrick highlight some interesting experiments among the lonely, among them:

  1. That faced with a task of trying enough cookies to rate their flavor, on average, people who have been told that co-workers didn’t like working with them ate twice as many cookies as people who had been told that co-workers loved working with them.
  2. Those who are lonely, for example in playing the Ultimatum Game, settle for far worse outcomes or  distributions than those who are not lonely (similar to people with low self-esteem choosing partners or dates who mistreat them, subconsciously justifying that they are not worthy of better treatment).
  3. The lonely sleep less well and less efficiently.
  4. The lonely can’t think as clearly.
  5. The lonely were more likely to describe a gadget anthropomorphically and the lonely were more likely to believe in the supernatural (e.g., God, angels or miracles), and believed in the supernatural more when they were feeling lonely.
  6. Lonely people had higher levels of chronic inflammation, a condition associated with heart and artery disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and other illnesses.

The Boston Sunday Globe interview with Cacioppo can be read here.

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

Lonely people face high blood pressure risks (UPDATED 5/2013)

Two psychologists at University of Chicago (John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley) found a 30-point difference in systolic blood pressure readings between older Americans experiencing loneliness and those who are not lonely, suggesting that loneliness could increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease.  The 30 point difference would take someone from normal blood pressure of 120 up to Stage 1 hypertension of 150.

The differences were highest at retirement age, and these differences did not go away when controlling for perceived stress, symptoms of depression, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, blood pressure medications and demographic characteristics

The  paper (by Cacioppo, Hawkley, Masi and Berry), “Loneliness is a Unique Predictor of Age-Related Differences in Systolic Blood Pressure,” has been published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

The authors indicated that in a sense of social connectedness may have clinical benefits comparable to lifestyle modifications” (like weight loss or physical exercise).

229 people aged 50 to 68, who form the basis for the study are part of a long-term study on aging (and include Whites, Asians and Latinos). Respondents were rated on loneliness through questions such as “I have a lot in common with the people around me,” “My social relationships are superficial,” and “I can find companionship when I want it.”

Cacioppo found earlier that loneliness increased “peripheral vascular resistance” in young people, or in other words an increase in resistance to blood flow brought on by their response to stress.  Over time this could increase their blood pressure.  “Lonely people differ from non-lonely individuals in their tendency to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging, and to passively cope with stress by failing to solicit instrumental and emotional support and by withdrawing from stress rather than actively coping and attempting to problem solve,” Cacioppo said.  The latest research may well connect with Cacioppo’s earlier research and show the causal link over time.

Richard Suzman, director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging,  and one of the funders of the research was “surprised by the magnitude of the relationship between loneliness and hypertension in this well-controlled cross-sectional study…One of NIA’s goals is to help determine what can be done to improve the quality of relationships and social connectedness as a way to ease loneliness and reduce blood pressure.”

For related research see this Psychology Today piece.

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