Khazan: Why do people who are lonely interpret social situations more negatively?
Cacioppo: There’s two ways to think about it. One is what’s going on pre-attentively, and one that's going on consciously. [For example,] when you get hungry, you can feel it, you want to have some food. Its purpose is to motivate you to seek food before you are so low on fuel that you can no longer have the energy [to do so].
And loneliness motivates you to repair or replace connections that you feel are threatened or lost. So people pay more attention to social information because they’re motivated to reconnect.
So in hunger, you are [much] more sensitive to bitter than to sweet tastes. The reason for that development is that bitter tastes, evolutionarily speaking, were associated with poisons. What that means is if you’re really hungry, you’re going to spit out palatable, bitter food even though you’re trying to find something to keep you alive.
Same thing with loneliness. If you look at early humans and other hominids, they were not uniformly positive toward each other. We exploit each other, we punish each other, we threaten each other, we coerce. And so it isn't that I want to connect with anyone, I need to worry about friend or foe. Just like bitter versus sweet, poison vs. non poison, if I make an error and detect a person as a foe who turns out to be a friend, that's okay, I don’t make the friend as fast, but I survive.
That sets up an expectation, because what I expect is often what I see. If I think you're going to be hostile, I'm going to answer questions very differently than if I trust you.
You’re motivated to connect. But promiscuous connection with others can lead to death. A neural mechanism kicks in to make you a little skeptical or dubious about connecting.
Khazan: Some studies have found that creating more opportunities for social interaction, or even improving social skills, doesn’t really help reduce loneliness. Why not?
Cacioppo: Social interaction is sometimes called social engagement, basically the idea there is that loneliness can be cured by putting people together. As in, if they're not alone, they wont feel lonely. Colleges think this, which is why they have mixers. You remember mixers in college? They don't work.
Being with others doesn’t mean you’re going to feel connected, and being alone doesn’t mean you're going to feel lonely. It can, but usually we choose to be alone.
A new mother with a newborn she loves—loves playing with the baby—that does not mean the husband shouldn’t give her a break, let her go off and regenerate, have some time to herself, so that she can return and continue to be absolutely generous and loving and adoring. That time alone enhances social connections, it doesn’t contract it.
Cacioppo: There are programs like this for highly lonely elderly people. They provide social support, they bring them food, they might meet with them for once a month. Doing that is actually helping these people. Their biggest fear is they're going to die and no one will ever know it. And that their body will sit and rot, which is a pretty horrific thought. And the fact that they're visited once a month provides solace to them.
That’s a different issue than making them feel less lonely. They are getting social support, it is addressing a serious problem, but it's not going to do very much for their level of loneliness. It just solves the existential fear of no one ever knowing not only that they were ever on earth, but that they even perished.
Khazan: How would you do therapy to try to help people who think they’re lonely but are nonetheless wary of connecting with people?
Cacioppo: What we teach is a whole set of skills: How do you read the face, the voice, the posture of people? And we showed them how incorrect those readings can be. So there are ways, and they can lead to correct answers, but they can also lead to highly incorrect answers, and we showed how that happens.
So how do you verify? You’re open but you’re watchful, you're vigilant. You test hypotheses. So if you're at that party, you might talk to others and you give them a chance.
The other thing we’ve shown is that loneliness, interestingly, is related to an increase in egocentrism. Self-preservation depends more on your attention to your outcomes when you’re lonely than when you have lots of connections. [Sometimes] if you talk to a lonely person, they'll start talking to you and you can't get away. So, how do you share rather than just barrage? It’s about interactions, it’s about synergy, it's about mutuality.
Cacioppo: One of the biggest misunderstandings is what loneliness is. They equate it with being alone, and that leads to attempts to solve the problem that don’t solve the problem at all. And if you try enough times, you start to feel like, “Well, I’ll never be able to solve this, I’m just a worthless person.” And that's when you start getting social withdrawal.
The purpose of loneliness is like the purpose of hunger. Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We're a social species.
One notion that people intuitively have is it's just about being with other people, and we've already talked about how that’s wrong. The other thing is that it’s just about social support—“I need more support.” And that doesn’t work very well because the logic of that is it's not mutual. Just getting support doesn't actually make you feel very good. This is one of the reasons why when we do something for others, we tend to feel good. If you go cook at a soup kitchen, all of a sudden you start finding out that people can actually be pretty nice, they're responding with gratitude.
The third common thing is that it’s social skills, that people with poor social skills are the ones who are lonely. Well, guess what? That's not the case. If you have really bad social skills, you’re more likely to be lonely, that's true. But lots of people feel lonely who have great social skills. Millionaires, billionaires, tend to feel lonely. A lot of athletes often feel lonely. Lots of people want to be their friend, but how would you feel if all the people who want to be your friend, you had the alternative interpretation that they want material or social benefits that you could give them.
This is why you see some [famous] athletes from [poor] neighborhoods not severing those ties, even though it's clearly to their benefit if they were to do so. Those are the only relationships they know are real, are authentic.
Khazan: Is there something lonely people should be doing proactively, like going to a book club or soup kitchen?
Cacioppo: Do volunteer service in something that you enjoy. I've developed the acronym EASE—ease your way back into social connections. The first E stands for “extend yourself,” but extend yourself safely. Do a little bit at a time.
The A is “have an action plan.” Recognize that it’s hard for you. Most people don’t need to like you, and most people won't. So deal with that, it's not a judgment of you, there's lots of things going on. Ask [other people] about themselves, get them talking about their interests.
The S is “seek collectives.” People like similar others, people who have similar interests, activities, values. That makes it easier to find a synergy.
And finally when you do those things, “Expect” the best.
The reason for that is to try to counteract this hyper-vigilance for social threat.
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