Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Loneliness – John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick ***

“For the last five centuries or more, Western societies have demoted human gregariousness from a necessity to an incidental.” This bold claim is the starting point for an in-depth survey of our human need for “social connection” and the perils that await individuals and societies that do not meet this need. The authors do well to narrow down this impossibly broad theme and bring it within the range of recent psychology, neuroscience, and ethology (the study of animal behaviour). The result is comprehensive and in many ways convincing. Loneliness, it seems, contaminates everything from our diet to our DNA transcriptions.
The lead author is John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and Director of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. As you might expect, Cacioppo takes the science seriously. And he and his co-editor William Patrick keep the narrative moving along with plenty of personal anecdotes and literary references. The result is a book that is rarely dull and usually rigorous.
Does Loneliness make a convincing case for social connectedness? By and large, yes. There are three parts to Cacioppo’s argument. The first part deals with all the ways that loneliness damages the overall health of an individual. If Cacioppo is right, loneliness is a major psychological toxin, with symptoms ranging from a lowered IQ and poor self-control to unhealthy diet, loss of sleep and elevated blood pressure. The second part deals with the ways that loneliness impairs our ability to connect socially. Lonely people, it seems, respond less well to social cues than non-lonely people, take less pleasure in company, and exaggerate their own social incompetence. As Cacioppo points out, these feedback effects are what makes loneliness, in the worst cases, such a corrosive and long-lasting condition.
The last part of the argument is about the health of communities rather than individuals. In lizards and in bonobos, and therefore in humans, mutual aid and self-sacrifice is a great survival strategy for a group. In general, “the more extensive the reciprocal altruism born of social connection, the greater the advance towards health, wealth and happiness.” Even if our interests are purely economic, the authors argue, we are better off banding together than splitting into factions.
Tacked on to this economic/sociological/evolutionary claim is a polemic against “global capitalism” and its accompaniments: social atomisation, the breakdown of neighbourhoods, and the reliance on meagre substitutes such as pets, mega-churches, and the internet. The critique of capitalism is half-baked, but the statistics about social isolation make for grim reading. They also make the second-to-last chapter of the book – a recovery guide for the lonely – an important resource. If the statistics are right, most readers will benefit from the author’s suggestions on how to restore their sense of social connection. The self-help style of this chapter – complete with quotes from the Dalai Lama and a 5-step programme summarised in a cute anagram, EASE – may be off-putting for some. But by and large this chapter, like the rest of the book, delivers sensible advice without waffle or sentimentality.
For readers who are already paragons of social connectivity, Loneliness still has plenty of material not directly related to loneliness. There is the obligatory introduction to evolutionary theory, with a socially-oriented twist. There are sections on mirror neurones, confirmation bias, and attachment theory. And, for those who wonder how psychologists find stuff out, the studies in the book embrace a wide range of investigative techniques, from brain scans to highly controlled laboratory studies to surveys that follow a group of individuals over multiple years.
One problem with Loneliness is its over-reliance on evolutionary arguments. Aside from the fact that socio-biology is no longer young and exciting, and that it is outside the author’s expertise, there is the uncomfortable fact that we owe most of our adaptive features to millennia of brutal competition with other species and with other individuals in our own species. With this background, tales of co-operative lizards and compassionate bonobos seem like so much cherry-picking. Also, the authors tend to blur the boundaries between analogies and shared causes. Female bonobos masturbate when they meet, as a sign of good will; humans gossip. In both cases co-operation is aided by sharing information. But are we seriously meant to believe that human gossip has the same genetic basis as bonobo masturbation? And if there is no such causal link between these analogous behaviours, what purpose does the analogy serve?
Another defect in the book is the old problem of causes and correlations. If people who suffer from condition A also suffer from condition B, how do we know that A causes B and not the other way round? The authors do not answer this question at all in their flagship study on loneliness in an Ohio population. They show, for example, that lonely people tend to have more run-ins with neighbours and a higher rate of divorce. But this on its own does not show that loneliness causes the run-ins and divorces. The point is not just academic. If loneliness is not the cause here, then making people less lonely is not going to make them less prone to run-ins and divorces.
My last complaint is that the book lacks spark. It stands out from the current crop of books on positive psychology and social relations, but only for the rather dull reason that it is more thorough and down-to-earth. For all the anecdotes and personal stories, none of them really lose the stiffness of case histories. For a book about social connection I felt too little real connection with the authors – at any rate, too little to give it more than 3 stars.
When reading popular science books on psychology, I waver between pity and admiration. Pity because often a long string of careful experiments seem only to confirm, in a highly artificial setting, what we all know from ordinary life. Admiration because the human mind, especially the social mind, is so complicated that only the very brave and skilful are likely to find out anything new about it. I’m pleased to report that after reading Loneliness I felt more admiration than pity for Cocioppo and Patrick. Lonely readers will find plenty of reassurance and helpful advice in this book, not least from the knowledge that many others share their condition. And non-lonely readers will be reminded how lucky they are to live socially well-rounded lives – even as they are reminded of how much they have in common with bonobos and lizards.
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Review by Michael Bycroft

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