Aha-Soft/Shutterstock
Source: Aha-Soft/Shutterstock

A new study reports that increased perceptions of social isolation or a heightened degree of self-centeredness can feed off one another to create an uptick in both loneliness and self-centeredness. This feedback loop has the potential to snowball out of control as we get older. The good news is that finding ways to curtail self-centeredness may create an upward spiral that simultaneously reduces loneliness while increasing social connectedness. 

This research was led by legendary social neuroscientist John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago. Cacioppo began his pioneering research on the psychophysiology and evolutionary roots of perceived social isolation decades ago. His team's latest findings on the reciprocal influences between loneliness and self-centeredness were published June 13 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The empirical evidence included in this study is based on 11 years of data taken from 2002 to 2013 as part of the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study (CHASRS). 

The latest research by Cacioppo et al. explored how the stress-inducing psychophysiological response of social isolation can trigger egocentrism as marked by increased self-centeredness. The authors write, “The current study is the first to our knowledge to test a prediction that loneliness increases the extent to which an individual responds in a fashion that reflects concerns for his or her own interests and welfare—that is, loneliness increases self-centeredness.”

To measure various degrees of self-centeredness, the researchers used the “Chronic Self-Focus” scale which gauges someone's self-centeredness based on six questions (i.e. “I think about myself a lot.”). Questionnaire respondents use a 5-point scale ranging from “does not describe me at all” to “describes me very well.” Someone's final score is calculated by adding up the self-assessed responses to each of the six questions.

In a statement to the University of Chicago, John Cacioppo said, "If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated." Adding, "Humans evolved to become such a powerful species in large part due to mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that proved adaptive in social interactions. When we don't have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare. That is, we become more self-centered."

In modern society, the researchers believe that becoming more and more self-centered may give the illusion of immunizing a lonely person in the short term, but this effect becomes a form of self-sabotage in the long run. This is because the detrimental effects of loneliness build up over time and can wear down a person's overall well-being and undermine his or her resilience. "This evolutionarily adaptive response may have helped people survive in ancient times, but in contemporary society may well make it harder for people to get out of feelings of loneliness," according to John Cacioppo. 

Loneliness and self-centeredness appear to create a feedback loop that may have evolved for the sake of short-term self-preservation in the face of danger. However, this survival mechanism may backfire in a digital era where daily habits (such as excessive social media usage) have been found to exacerbate feelings of perceived social isolation and chronic self-focus. 

Cacioppo and the co-authors of this study—which included his wife, Stephanie Cacioppo, who is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, and Hsi-Yuan Chen, who is senior biostatistics analyst in the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at UChicago—are optimistic that targeting self-centeredness may be effective as part of an intervention that ultimately reduces loneliness across someone's lifespan.  

The discovery that loneliness tends to increase self-centeredness fits the evolutionary interpretation of loneliness. From an evolutionary-biological viewpoint, people have to be concerned with their own interests. But again, the pressures of modern society are significantly different than those our ancestors experienced millennia ago when the psychophysiology of loneliness began evolving within the human species.

Stephanie Cacioppo reaffirms the main takeaway message of this research saying, "When humans are at their best, they provide mutual aid and protection. It isn't that one individual is sacrificial to the other. It's that together they do more than the sum of the parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your interests at the expense of others."

These words of wisdom echo the sentiment of a commencement address Jake Tapper of CNN gave at Dartmouth College on June 11. Here is a clip of his speech, which drives home the importance of reducing self-centeredness.

I was sitting in the audience with my family celebrating the graduation of my niece, Annelise, when I heard Tapper's commencement address last weekend. At the time, I was unaware of the latest research by Cacioppo et al. which was under embargo until today. Nonetheless, while listening to Tapper's advice, I was well aware of feeling both a reduced sense of social isolation and less self-centeredness. Notably, this was the first time I'd reconnected face-to-face with my entire extended family in a very long time. Tapper shared the following insights with my niece and her classmates: 

“My book the Outpost remains the professional work I am proudest of. It is also the one that is least about me and it is the most meaningful ... That which you end up doing in the service of something greater than you, even if it means that you feel lesser, humbler, even worthless by comparison will live on. Honoring the humanity of others allows you to get in closer touch with your own. And this is the most important thing I can tell you today Class of 2017: Don’t just work hard at your job. Work hard at everything. Work hard at being a friend. Work hard at being a partner, at being a son or a daughter, at being a grandchild...at being a steward in your community. Work hard at caring about other people.”

In closing, John Cacioppo heralds the findings of his latest study as a call to action. He says, "Now that we know loneliness is damaging and contributing to the misery and health care costs of America, how do we reduce it?" The million-dollar question for all of us is how to reduce the ever-increasing levels of perceived social isolation and chronic self-focus that appear to be plaguing our nation. From a public health perspective, making strides to reduce our individual and collective self-centeredness and loneliness is of paramount importance. 

Lastly, for my two cents on Cacioppo's clarion call for us to find ways to reduce perceived social isolation: When I first read this new study on loneliness and self-centeredness this morning, I was immediately reminded of the extensive research I've curated on a broad range of vagal maneuvers anyone can use to stimulate his or her parasympathetic response and activate the universal "tending-and-befriending" aspects of the vagus nerve.

Among other things, having robust vagal tone is associated with more prosocial behaviors, a smaller sense of self, increased self-distancing, less egocentric bias, wiser reasoning, and generativity. All of these characteristics are also tied to diminished self-centeredness. (To read more on how to improve your vagal tone, check out my nine-part series: “A Vagus Nerve Survival Guide to Combat Fight-or-Flight Urges.”)

Please stay tuned for updates on continuing scientific research that will help to pinpoint clinically proven interventions that can minimize both self-centeredness and loneliness by the Cacioppos and others. 

References

“Reciprocal Influences Between Loneliness and Self-Centeredness: A Cross Lagged Panel Analysis in a Population-Based Sample of African American, Hispanic and Caucasian Adults,” by John T. Cacioppo, Hsi-Yuan Chen and Stephanie Cacioppo. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/0146167217705120

Brian A. Primack, Ariel Shensa, Jaime E. Sidani, Erin O. Whaite, Liu yi Lin, Daniel Rosen, Jason B. Colditz, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S.. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010

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