It's Time for a Science of Social Connection

Building better relationships and marriages through science

Posted Jul 16, 2010

Through most of human history, life consisted of a set of reciprocal obligations to parents, to children, to other relatives, to the honor of the family and perhaps the village. During the 20th century, the importance of social bonds has been given little more weight than the importance of clean air and water. The decline of stable communities, along with the mechanization of life and death had introduced a sense of alienation. The traditional means of pair-bonding, guided in large part by family and societal considerations, gave way to the influences of juvenile fantasies and outward appearances. Walter Lippman warned us a century ago that "we have changed our environment more quickly than we have changed ourselves." A. E. Houseman described a new kind of person, "alone and afraid, in a world I never made."

This rootlessness has persisted. By mid century, executive transfers had become a staple of corporate life, turning the upwardly mobile into a new species of migrant worker. The triumph of the interstate highway system, tract housing, strip development, and the automobile encouraged interchangeable landscapes, with entire "communities" massed-produced as marketable commodities.

Still no one factored in the cost of transience in economic and social terms. But at least researchers like Robert Weiss began to explore the impact of social atomization on loneliness, divorce-rates, and well-being. In observing new ways of organizing daily existence, he noted how "the loss of natural daily social gatherings on the porch, the street, or the corner drugstore made sharing experiences and insulating problems more difficult."(Weiss, 1973, Loneliness. MIT Press). Residents of transient communities lacked not only long-term relationships with friends and neighbors but the benefits of older generations of family members close by.

Mark Fried, Weiss' colleague, referred to the loneliness of working-class residents of Boston's West End as ‘grieving for a lost home' after their neighborhood was razed for what was then called urban renewal. Boston's West End was a community of people rich in attachments, both to the place, and to each other. If you have ever visited Boston's North End, a chaotic jumble which still exists and that seems to operate as an extended family, then you get the idea. Weiss speculated that the "intense personal suffering" of the West Ends' dispossessed would not be "easily alleviated by larger or newer apartments."(Weiss, 1973).

Nonetheless, champions of "modernism" like Robert Moses continued to bulldoze neighborhoods to bring expressways through cities, and social planners built huge, "vertical slums" to warehouse the poor. Espousing an opposing view, urbanists like Jane Jacobs extolled the virtues and vitality of life on a smaller, more compact scale, where people live and work on the same block. She wrote about the greater trust and sense of connection, as well as the enriching, serendipitous encounters that result.

Voices pointing to the costs of social disconnection and the importance of achieving a better understanding of what produces stable, satisfying social relationships were clearly in the minority, though.

Former Senator William Proxmire had a long and varied political career, but it is the "Golden Fleece of the Month" for which he is primarily remembered. Proxmire and his staff gave the "award" from 1975 to 1989 for what they characterized as "wasteful, ironic or ridiculous uses of the taxpayers' money." Most Golden Fleeces targeted financial mismanagement and pork-barrel development projects. A minority went to scientific projects.

In March 1975, the first "award" was given to psychologists Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Hatfield. Drs. Hatfield and Berscheid were pioneers in the scientific study of romantic love, and they had received a small grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate factors that might contribute to unstable and unsatisfying social connections. In a country in which people's intuitive theories about how to select and establish a long term relationship were netting a divorce rate around 50%, there was a dire need for serious scientific research on the determinants of interpersonal attraction and long-term relationship satisfaction. Then along came Senator Proxmire, who awarded them the "Golden Fleece Award," claiming they were "fleecing" taxpayers with "unneeded" scientific research. Drs. Hatfield and Berscheid were inundated with critical and even threatening letters and phone calls. Both were denied federal funding after this award, and both suffered personally and professionally as a consequence of the Fleece Award. Dr. Hatfield left the field of research, and Dr. Berscheid lost her dog, her marriage, and her support.

Proxmire's reign of terror was more than three decades ago - prior to the birth of most Americans living today. To many, that's ancient history. Certainly things must have changed in the 21st century.

They haven't.

We still are in need of serious scientific research on the determinants of interpersonal attraction and satisfying, long-term relationships. On June 24th, 2005 Congressman Randy Neugebauer attached an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services bill to take funding away from a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health which had received very high ratings in a rigorous merit review. The grant had been awarded to Professor Sandra Murray at the State University of New York-Buffalo to conduct a longitudinal study of newlywed couples. A vote passed the U.S. House of Representatives to defund this grant because they believed it was a waste of tax-payer dollars.

Our society and our daily social relationships are changing so quickly that rigorous scientific investigations of what it takes to form satisfying and lasting social relationships are badly needed but Congress and our past-President thought that no such science is possible.

What is the evidence that such a science is needed? The divorce rate remains around 50%, and the conditions of social isolation are growing at an alarming rate. In 1990, 21 percent of U.S. households with children under 18 were headed by a single parent; by 2000, the proportion of single parent households had grown to 29 percent. There are now more than 27 million Americans living alone. According to the middle projections by the U.S. Census Bureau (1996), the number of people living alone will grow to almost 29 million by 2010 - more than a 30% increase since 1980. General Social Survey respondents in 2004 were three times more likely than respondents in 1985 to report having no one with whom to discuss important matters. The modal respondent reported three confidants in 1985, and no confidants in 2004.

Although we like to think of ourselves as mythic individualists, we are fundamentally social organisms. We are born to the most prolonged period of abject dependency of any mammal. For the species to survive, human infants must instantly engage their parents in protective behavior, and the parents must care enough about their offspring to nurture and protect them. Even once grown we are not particularly splendid physical specimens. Other animals can run faster, see and smell better, and fight more effectively than we can. Our major evolutionary advantage is our brain and ability to communicate, remember, plan, and work together. Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not our individual might. Our very health and well being depend on our ability to form and maintain satisfying social connections with one another.

National surveys support the beneficial effects of affiliation with others. When asked "what is necessary for happiness?" the majority of respondents rate "relationships with family and friends" as most important. In a large study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, individuals who reported having contact with five or more intimate friends in the prior six months were 60% more likely to report that their lives were "very happy."

Social isolation, on the other hand, has been linked to an increased risk of infectious, cardiovascular, and neoplastic diseases. Our own research indicates that social isolation is reflected in different neural pathways in the brain when people think about other people. One of the major functions of the human brain is to enable skilled social interactions and permit stable and satisfying social relationships. Specifying the neural mechanisms underlying satisfying social interactions is one of the major challenges for the neurosciences in the twenty-first century. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging study to address this question, we found one set of brain regions, centered in the ventral striatum which is associated with reward systems, to be less active in lonely people when viewing pleasant pictures involving people. Another set of brain regions, the visual cortex which is associated with visual attention and the temporparietal junction which is involved in theory of mind, varies in response to unpleasant social pictures, indicating that lonely individuals are more attentive to social cues (just like hungry people are more attentive to food cues) but lonely people also think about social information in a more egocentric fashion than nonlonely individuals.

To investigate the genetic mechanisms associated with loneliness, we analyzed genome-wide transcriptional profiles in white blood cells from individuals who chronically experienced high vs. low levels of social isolation in their daily lives. 209 differentially expressed genes were identified by DNA microarray analysis, with lonely individuals showing over-expression of genes involved in immune activation, transcriptional control, and cell proliferation, and relative under-expression of genes supporting mature B lymphocyte function and immunological response. Bioinformatic analysis identified signal transduction pathways driving these differential gene expression. Despite lonely individuals showing elevations in circulating cortisol - a powerful stress hormone -lonely individuals showed a paradoxical under-expression of genes bearing glucocorticoid response elements and a corresponding over-expression of genes for inflammation. These differences were not attributable to other demographic, psychological, or medical characteristics, or to variations in the subset composition of circulating white blood cells. These findings suggest that poor social connections influence the risk of human diseases in part by altering the sensitivity of the receptors on immune cells to an important class of stress hormones which in normal circumstances would keep inflammation in check, promote immunity and healing, and foster cognition and overall biological resilience.

Our research has also shown that perceived social isolation engenders hostility, impairs certain functions of executive cognitive control, increases vascular resistance and blood pressure, heightens stress hormone levels, impairs efficient sleep, and over time, seriously accelerates age-related decline in health and well-being. Given the data, we might assume that, if feelings of social isolation were an impurity in our air or water, there might be government hearings on what to do about it. Certainly we might try to avoid making it worse by the kinds of social institutions we build. But this is not the case today. Instead, we see the disregard for human connection still contributing to a frayed social fabric, staggeringly high health care costs, and a population that is one fifth poor, and one fifth beset by feelings of social isolation.

Several years ago, I had a serendipitous meeting with Neil Clark Warren, the founder of eHarmony. It was the first time we had met, and Neil was explaining to me his vision for eHarmony and eHarmony Labs. In our society today, people are finding and selecting partners based on superficial cues such as physical attractiveness, proximity, height, weight, hair color, and occupational status. Research by the fleece recipients Elaine Hatfield, Ellen Berscheid, and Sandra Murray, as well as others, has amply demonstrated that this selection process is fundamentally flawed. It is not that these search criteria turn-up bad people - it is that they turn-up people whose compatibility is only slightly better than if they were to have selected a partner based on the flip of a coin. Little surprise, then, that the divorce rate is so high, and many other married couples live desperately lonely lives. Neil was fully aware of al this, and he recognized the need for better selection procedures to identify likely life-long partners. As he explained to me, his vision for is to use the best scientific information available to maximize the compatibility of couples and the long-term health and quality of marital relationships. represents the product of this effort. Neil also realized that more rigorous scientific investigation of social connection is needed to continue to address the high divorce rates and splintered families that characterize industrialized societies the past half century. I am especially pleased and grateful to say that eHarmony Labs represents the largest corporately funded commitment to a science of social connection ever made.

As Neil explained it to me, "if we can improve the compatibility and health of couples, children will be raised in more nurturing and stable families, which in turn will produce better schools, neighborhoods, communities, cities, and societies."

I looked at him, and said, "You had me after "healthier couples."