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Being Taken Advantage of? Maybe It's Because You're Lonely

Lonely people are vulnerable to exploitation.

When I started graduate school at 22, I was extremely lonely (and poor -- living only on a graduate stipend). As a Northern city person, I was unprepared for the sticky hot climate and rural Southern culture of Gainesville, Florida. I didn't know a soul either.

I was relieved to find an apartment that I could share with two other female students. One of them told me that her mother had signed the lease for all of us, and so there was no need for me to sign. I just had to pay my share of the rent.

But then, in December, that roommate told me that I had to pack my bags and leave. She gave a reason that made no sense, leaving me feeling shocked and rejected. Later, my other roommate confided that it was because the first roommate's older sister was starting school in January. I had been deceived and used by the mother and daughter who knew all along that the sister would replace me.

All of that is not so surprising, right? It would have been very difficult for them to find someone who would have knowingly agreed to move in only for the first semester of a two-semester academic year. Thus, the mom and daughter had to deceive me, or they would have lost out on those months of rent. Most decent people wouldn't have done that, but at least their behavior was understandable.

What was surprising was my reaction. I didn't put up a fight or argue. I didn't confront the roommate or her mother on the deception. I merely packed my bags and left. I even sent her a check for the portion of December's utility bills I owed.

Lonely people (like I was as a graduate student) are easy targets for exploitation, as demonstrated by John Cacioppo and his colleagues in 2006 [1]. These researchers recruited lonely and non-lonely people for a game of negotiation. They used a variant of the classic economics game in which one person is assigned to the role of "proposer" and the other to the role of "decider". The proposer starts with a sum of money and is told that he or she can offer the decider any portion of that money. If the decider accepts the offer, both get to keep their respective portions. However, if the decider rejects the offer, neither gets to keep the money.

In Professor Cacioppo's version of this game, the lonely and non-lonely participants were always in the decider role. Meanwhile, the proposer was actually a confederate who started with 10 dollars in each of 20 rounds. The rounds were rigged so that in 10 of the rounds, the offers were nearly 50-50 splits; and in the other 10 rounds, the offers were clearly unfair (3 dollars or less for the decider). Who do you think was willing to accept more of these unfair offers?

It turns out that the lonely players, as compared to the non-lonely ones, accepted significantly more unfair offers. Cacioppo argued that acceptance of such exploitation sets up the lonely person for even more exploitation.

What can we take from all this? Perhaps we all look back at times in our lives when we put up with abusive behaviors from family, friends, or lovers that we would never tolerate now. We scratch our heads and wonder why we did. Well, maybe it was because we were lonely. And maybe we can forgive ourselves now that we're not.


1. See Chapter 11 of Cacioppo, J. T, & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: Norton.

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