John Cacioppo’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection explore the impact of social connection on people’s lifetime health and well-being in order to suggest the idea that “ethical, humane behavior” promotes “greater well-being, even economic well-being” (264). Along this basic premise, Cacioppo explains the relation of social connection to physical health in terms of self-regulation (“the sum total of an individual’s mental and physiological efforts to achieve balance”) and co-regulation (an individual’s ability to alter the behavior of the partner(s)) also brings about the idea of social connection being related to physical health in terms of mortality in that people need quality relationships (tailored to their own needs) to enrich their lives and thus would motivate them to take care of themselves (33). He also argues that social connections go far beyond the moderns ideas of texting and social networking to those in the animal kingdom who are similar to humans and actually play an important role in our evolutionary history. The idea of loneliness, briefly defined as “perceived social isolation,” (10) is addressed an “adaptive behavior that prompts social connection” (143) and can be measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is questions designed to assess an individual’s level of loneliness (21).
To support his claims, Cacioppo uses many studies of social psychology in which subjects are either humans or animals. There were also discussions about the biological impact of social connection on a person’s brain (from observations of fMRI) as well as their overall physical health through means of longitudinal studies, a correlational research study that is stretched out over years or decades at a time. Other supporting arguments to his claim were the evolutionary progress of humans – in that survival is promoted by people banding together and supporting each other with food and shelter as opposed to being separated by themselves.
Chapter one starts off with the introduction of the factors of loneliness and how they can affect an individual’s ability to maintain balance once they are lonely. That said, he does put a disclaimer that “being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely” because everyone has a different threshold for loneliness before it starts to affect their behavior negatively (27). He introduces an individual who has grown up in a “tightly knit community” and later reintroduces her in chapter two in comparison with another individual who has grown up in an opposite environment, and therefore did not need as much social interaction – in fact, he needed very little to be happy (20). Between these two individuals, he establishes the idea of different thresholds and reinforces it with longitudinal studies of people who report their well-being over a period of ten years (45). When the level of an individual’s loneliness is negatively affecting their behavior, there is a possibility that such behavior further increases isolation by discouraging the individual from social interaction with others though that can be counteracted by will and Cacioppo explains this by relating his own experiences of a bad day at work (45). Chapters three, four, five and six are in depth explanations of relationships on evolutionary progress and the biological connection. As earlier stated, one of his supporting arguments for his premise is that social interaction between individuals promote survival by allowing them to band together. One of the primary examples used in explaining the biological impact of relationships was not actually observed for this explanation though it did end up supporting that the body’s biology does have some relation to emotions and behaviors that do play a big role in interactions. Phineas Gage, a 19th century railroad worker who subsequently had a railroad spike go through his head, changed from a formerly well-liked social individual to one that no longer “incorporate social conventions and ethical concepts into his social interactions” (53). Through this example, Cacioppo was able to postulate that loneliness, as it can act as an impairment to an individual’s judgement, could affect the individual biologically and possibly stretch throughout their lives negatively if it overwhelms them.
What was interesting here was the idea and its introduction. The author did not take the risk of generalization but instead started off with individualistic cases that are otherwise relate-able to the average person. I did not find that his argument here was very supportive of his original premise because his example of the individual who did not need as much interaction with others, as the first individual introduced at the beginning, seemed to initially contradict his argument. However, raising the idea of different threshold of loneliness did help in establishing the difference in quality and quantity of social interactions. That said, rhetorically, he had said “loneliness itself is not a disease” and yet it was hard to read the book without feeling as though loneliness is a constant trend in the individual’s life, particularly when reading about the longitudinal studies (231).
The rest of the book, chapters seven through fourteen, actually focuses on regulation and co-regulation using mostly observations of the social behavior of chimps and bonobos (described as “a species closely related both to chimps” and humans) and studies related to interactions between mothers and monkey infants. Harlow’s experiment is revisited in chapter eight to show that co-regulation actually benefits and is in some ways essential to an infant parallel’s growth. Specifically, Harlow’s experiment deals with the isolation of infant monkeys that are exposed to “mothers” who are made either of cloth or wire. The “mother” made of wire provides food and sustenance for the monkeys while the other one is made of cloth and comfortable materials. Time and time again, the monkeys would choose the cloth “mother” over the “mother” who provided food and would only go to the latter when hungry (139). To further his argument, he had earlier noted that those monkeys who have grown up in isolation actually were impaired emotionally and mentally, often in ways that their behavior were not socially acceptable in interactions with an otherwise normally developed monkey. While this observation is not to suggest that people growing up in isolation might experience such extremity, the idea that the infant monkeys, even when raised in isolation, will prefer comfort over food. One of the more striking examples used was what happened in Romania when Nicolae Ceauescu, a communist dictator, outlawed contraception and abortion – resulting in an increase in number in orphanages that were not adequate for providing care for children. After his downfall in 1989, the orphanages were opened to the world and there were toddlers “who did not cry and did not speak” in addition to having been “delayed in motor and mental development” (140). Older children who passed through the same system were found to be “unable to form permanent attachments” (140).
As the more meaty part of the book, initially I did not particularly agree with some of the explanations relating observations of social interaction between chimps and monkeys to humans. One, because the domains in which humans exist stress of personal life, professional life, and other miscellaneous things, the factors for which social interaction occurs must be accounted for differently and are much more complex than for chimps and monkeys. That said, with chimps and monkeys, much of the interaction is physical – grooming, assessing dominance through battles, etc. – it seemed like an overstatement, and a fairly close step to the slippery slope, to suggest that observations revolving around the deprivation a monkey of its development with its mother will be similar to what will happen to a child going through the same situation. However, after learning about the example in Romania, it did positively support his argument regarding the relationship between social connection and an individual’s physical health, which overall went to support his premise.
Towards the end of the book, Cacioppo goes into self-regulation by comparing the differences and similarities between individuals with high or low levels of loneliness. Again, self-regulation is defined as “the sum total of an individual’s mental and physiological efforts to achieve balance,” meaning if the individual were to encounter a social situation that did not end up as expected, they would react in a certain way that would get them closest to equilibrium. In this context, it would be akin to having adequate communication with other people. For instance, an experiment conducted to monitor social cues suggested that while feeling lonely “increases a person’s attentiveness to social cues,” it actually depreciates the accuracy of “their interpretation of facial expression” (166). This is later explained that people’s negative thoughts actually brew more negative thoughts into a self-defeating mess that loses focus of the external world. Going back to the idea that overwhelming levels of loneliness actually impairs an individual’s judgement, in chapter twelve, there were several experiments suggesting that individuals with high levels of loneliness actually are not only more inclined to doubt others, but also more inclined to succumb to social pressure. Due to the self-defeating attitude, it is hard for these individuals to trust others but at the same time, as loneliness acts as a survival mechanism, there is an instinctive response to please the majority in order to join the group, peer or otherwise, and so the individual will easily agree to what the group says.
For the final part of the book, I initially found myself agreeing with him because of my own observations in daily life, especially in terms of watching individuals try to join a peer group or whatnot, but what I found to be a bit of a contradiction is that there seems to be no remnant of his earlier argument about having different thresholds of loneliness. The studies described in this portion of the book had individuals who have tried to fit in with the group as well as individuals who did not trust others. While this focused more on regulation, at this point in the book, people are described as either high in loneliness or low in loneliness so there comes a bit of a confusion in relating that to real life. So did the individuals high in loneliness have a low threshold that was overwhelmed?
Here, I found that there was a flaw in the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Because the idea of different thresholds of loneliness was introduced at the beginning of the book, it implies that the Loneliness Scale itself is flaw – much like polls can be distorted by the individual’s own interpretation of loneliness. For example, one of the questions is “How often do you feel that your interests and ideas are not shared by those around you?” (22) and answering the question would range from 1-4, always, sometimes, rarely, never, so it would not be an accurate representation of the person’s loneliness. While I understand that it is a method of normalizing the population to a more manageable way, upon closer speculation, it doesn’t make sense.
On the other hand, Cacioppo did focus on some positive aspects of social interaction as a closing argument for his claim. One example he used is the comparison between church goers who “go to church more than once a week” compared to those who “attend only once a week” and found that people end up living a healthful lifestyle (261) because the attendance increases social interaction as well as brings forth “social modeling – seeing others committed to compassionate helping” will reinforce that aspect in the individuals. Similar examples follow, all along the lines of how social interaction can actually benefit people when it reinforces their self worth and self esteem.
So in terms of how the author organized his arguments, I found that piece by piece – co-regulation while looking at mammals other than humans, regulations by look at humans, etc – his claim is fairly convincing in that the examples provided did have a strong argument for his premise but there is a disconnection between regulation and co-regulation for humans and otherwise that might have made his argument stronger if it had been disconnected. For chimps and bonobo, it’s hard to observe regulation because bonobos are not widely understood as chimps to begin with and communication between chimps and humans are nothing like communication between humans and humans so it’s hard to both qualify and quantify the extent of the regulation. One can’t ask a chimp what they would do in X and Y situation because there is a verbal barrier and sometimes, regulation is done verbally (ie, positive affirmations). So I think due to the support of the studies, the argument was pretty strong, but then it’s hard to say that those ideas would necessarily stick now because social networking has become a means for communication, even though it is not face-to-face. One would theorize that people are isolated in front of their computers but a counter to that may be that they are connecting with others still. Either way, it does open up an interesting area of study for this concept of loneliness.
Cacioppo, J., and W. Patrick. Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W.W Norton and Company, 2008. eBook.