Loneliness can spread through social networks


Loneliness can spread through social networks

A new US study of social networks found that a person's loneliness can spread to others, in that when they become lonely they move to the edge of the network and transmit feelings of loneliness to their few remaining friends who also become lonely, leading to an effect that the researchers described as an unravelling at the edges of our social fabric.

The study, which was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is the work of John T Cacciopo of the University of Chicago, James H Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas A Christakis of Harvard University and is about to be published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Cacciopo, a social neuroscientist and lead investigator on the study, is Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at Chicago. He told the press that:

"We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely."

"On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left," he added.

Loneliness is often associated with mental and physical diseases that can shorten life, said Cacioppo, so it is important for us to recognize it and help people reconnect with their social group before they move to the edges.

He and his co-authors wrote that while previous studies have already shown that a person's loneliness and the number of people they are connected to in a network are linked, we don't know much about "the placement of loneliness within, or the spread of loneliness through, social networks".

Using longitudinal data from a large-scale study, they found that loneliness, like a bad cold, spreads in groups: people share their loneliness with others.

Cacioppo and colleagues used data on 5,124 people in the second generation of participants from the Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the health of individuals and their descendants for more than 60 years. The data set included information taken every two to four years on participants' friends and social contacts.

For the study, Cacioppo and colleagues charted the friendship histories of participants and linked them to their reports of loneliness. This showed a pattern of loneliness that spread as people reported fewer close friends, and that lonely people appeared to transmit loneliness to others, and then moved to the edges of their social networks.

"Loneliness is disproportionately represented at the periphery of social networks and spreads through a contagious process," wrote the researchers.

For example, one pattern might start when a participant reports one extra day a week of loneliness. This is followed by similar reports among his or her next-door neighbours who are also close friends. The pattern of loneliness then spreads as the neighbours spend less time together.

"These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater," explained Cacioppo.

The researchers also found that:

  • Women were more likely to report "catching loneliness from others" than men (perhaps reinforcing findings from studies that suggest women rely more on emotional support than men).
  • Loneliness occurred in clusters and extended up to three degrees of separation.
  • ,A person's chances of reporting increased loneliness were more likely to be linked to changes in friendship networks than changes in family networks.
The authors concluded that the study helps us better understand the social forces that drive loneliness.

Society may benefit by "aggressively targeting the people in the periphery to help repair their social networks and to create a protective barrier against loneliness that can keep the whole network from unraveling," they added.

Other studies suggest that as people become lonely they trust other people less and less, and this leads to a cycle of less trusting and more loneliness, which leads to less trusting, and so on, and as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to make friends.

Cacioppo said researchers have seen this social tendency reflected in monkey colonies that drive out members who have been removed and then reintroduced.

He said such a pattern makes it all the more important for us to recognize and offset loneliness before it spreads.

"Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network."

John T Cacciopo, James H Fowler, Nicholas A Christakis.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 2009 (pre-publication proof).

DOI:10.1037/a0016076

Additional source: University of Chicago.

How Loneliness Can Infect Social Networks (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Psychiatry