Sad and Ironic Study Says Loneliness Can Be Contagious

By Andrew Moseman | December 1, 2009 11:02 am

lonely220In our slideshow this fall of social factors that make you fat, DISCOVER mentioned research from 2007 that gathered data from the famous Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking people in the Massachusetts town since 1948, to show that having overweight friends made people more likely to put on the pounds. Now, another study, this time published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, uses the same Framingham data to suggest that loneliness is actually contagious.

But how could the feeling of social isolation be socially contagious? The federally funded analysis of data collected from more than 4,000 people over 10 years found that lonely people increase the chances that someone they know will start to feel alone, and that the solitary feeling can spread one more degree of separation, causing a friend of a friend or even the sibling of a friend to feel desolate [Washington Post]. Friends of lonely people were 52 percent more likely to develop lonely feelings, the researchers say, and a friend of that person was 25 percent more likely.

Lonely people, the researchers suggest, become less trusting of others and of their own social skills, and they have fewer interactions as they supposedly move further toward the periphery of their social networks. As the social connections they do have start to fade, the argument goes, their friends begin to feel lonelier and the wave of loneliness begins to spread through the social network.

Study author John Cacioppo argued back in 2006 that loneliness raises heart rate and makes people unhealthier. But lest he be accused of picking on individuals, he says that’s not the case. “Society tends to think of it as an individual characteristic — there are just loners,” he says. “But that’s the wrong conception of what loneliness is. It’s a biological signal motivating us to correct something that we need for genetic survival. We need quality relationships. We don’t survive well on our own” [MSNBC].

Still, if you’re suspicious of these social network studies suggesting that happiness, loneliness, fatness, and lots of other attributes spread like the plague, you’re not alone—some scientists feel the same way. Says Jason Fletcher: “It is unclear whether their statistical model will ‘find’ social contagion in every outcome they examine because of the limitations.” … He and a colleague conducted a similar analysis using data from a large federal survey to show that acne, headaches and even height could appear to be spread through social networks if not analyzed properly [Washington Post].

Related Content:
80beats: Happiness Spreads Like the Plague
DISCOVER: Why Loneliness is Bad for You
DISCOVER: Will Loneliness Spell Society’s Doom?
DISCOVER: How to Make Your Friends Fat (slide show)

Image: flickr / bionicteaching

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Martin g

    Ah yes, nice to see a new ‘ it’s contagious ‘ study . . .

    Previous examples include contagious happiness, contagious non-smoking, and contagious obesity.

    And here’s one from 2008, in the BMJ. Proving that acne, headaches and height are contagious – if you frame the data in the right way . . .

  • leeron

    In my view, I think the two mentioned results of the research both on obesity and loneliness are confusing. They fail to account for whether fat people are more easier to be friends or whether a fat friend will lead to your obesity, and whether loneliness people more tend to be friends or to be infected by lonesome friends.

    They just tell us nothing!!

  • Angie

    I find that an interesting thought, Ieeron. I would tend to assume, that it is easier to find friends, who are lonely (speaking out of my own experience). Did they make me feel lonely though? I don´t think so! Do overweight people make you overweight? I dare say they don´t, because lots of them are on some sort of diet! Those who eat a lot, might actually make you LOSE weight, as the picture of them eating and then putting on (more) weight might get stuck in your head! (No offence, but that explains how come many partners of overweight people are skinny!) But these are just the experiences I have made, so you don´t have to agree with me!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar