Loneliness is a response to social and environmental triggers. To understand the sociology of loneliness, we need to consider:
In addition, there are societal drivers of loneliness which has its own page.
There are three basic social connection dimensions underlying the loneliness phenotype. These dimensions reflect the degree of social connection (or social isolation) in three related but separable domains (Hawkley et al. 2005, 2012):
“The three dimensions are correlated but separable and robust…Each of these dimensions may have a different evolutionary basis.”
Cacioppo et al. (2014)
Intimate isolation/connection refers “to the perceived absence/presence of someone in your life who serves as a nurturing confidant, someone who affirms your value as a person” (Cacioppo et al. 2014). From an evolutionary perspective, the population benefits from a distribution of sensitivities to intimate disconnection: individuals who are sensitive to intimate disconnection will return to protect their intimate other (and, therefore, family); while those who are insensitive to intimate disconnection may explore more widely discovering new opportunities for the population.
Sometimes called social loneliness, relationship isolation/connection refers “to the perceived absence/presence of quality friendships or family connections” (Cacioppo et al. 2014). This factor is more significant in women (than men) and plays a larger role in influencing the degree of loneliness in women (than men) (Cacioppo et al. 2014). From an evolutionary perspective, this social connection dimension motivates one-to-one non-intimate (but still meaningful) relationships with family and friends, for the survival of each other.
Collective isolation refers “to the perceived presence/absence of a meaningful connection with a group or social entity beyond the level of individuals (e.g., school, team, nation) (Cacioppo et al. 2014). This factor is more significant in men (than women) (Cacioppo et al. 2014). “The emergence of a collective connectedness factor underlying loneliness, therefore, suggests that we may have evolved the capacity for and motivation to form relationships not only with other individuals but also with groups…, with the consequence being the promotion of co-operation in aversive conditions (e.g., competition, hunting, warfare)” (Cacioppo et al. 2014), in order to survive.
The behaviour of the group can influence the loneliness of the individual. That is, loneliness is not only about the individual, but also about how groups collectively exclude individuals – to protect the structural integrity of the group (Morrison and Smith 2017). The lonely may be pushed to the outer edges of social groups, from which they may cut ties (Cacioppo, Fowler et al. 2009).
Some groups in all walks of life still have some people forming cliques. While this is intended to keep a close knit group of people who know each other well, and conform, it has the result of excluding others. People who have less trust, lower self-esteem and self-confidence tend to be part of these cliques, not being able to readily accept strangers.
In particular, because groups tend to reject lonely individuals (Ladd 1999), unlike being able to talk openly of aversive signals such as hunger and pain, there is a stigma around admitting to feeling lonely.
Economists think in terms of investments in capital today that can be used in the future. With the relationship between social connections and loneliness, we can conceive of the effort building intimate, social, and group relationships as an investment in social connections capital that can be used in the future.
When the social connections capital becomes too low, individuals may feel lonely motivating them to reinvest in social connections for their long-term survival.
With a reinvestment in social connections, the social connections capital increases until the individual does not perceive social isolation and no longer feels lonely.
Loneliness is an aversive signal that motivates individuals to build meaningful relationships between each other. These relationships create a resilience structure for themselves, and across society.
Across all ages, change is constant in life with about 70% of New Zealanders experiencing at least one change that had a major impact on their lives (e.g. health, finances, relationships) in the last twelve months (Stats NZ 2015). For older people (aged 65+), about half of the events are related to health and a quarter to death. When individuals face a significant event in their life, they are likely to draw on their social network (Stats NZ 2015).
Family is the most important source of support, with about 60% getting support from family (Stats NZ 2015). For older people aged 65+, this falls to 54% getting support from family. About 20% of New Zealanders who experience a life event do not get help (Stats NZ 2015). This increases to 23% for older people (aged 65+), who are more likely to seek external professional support.
When society is in time of need (e.g. war, famine), meaningful relationships provide a complex of networks across society that can be called upon. Since this resilience structure is bottom-up, it is more robust than a top-down resilience structure. For example, when there is natural disaster authorities may not be able to immediately respond to everyone’s needs; at these times meaningful relationships with family, friends, and community can fill the gap.
To explore other sciences of loneliness, please click the coloured box of interest.
Cacioppo, John, James Fowler, and Nicholas Christakis (2009): “Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 97(6), p. 977–991.
Cacioppo, John, Stephanie Cacioppo and Dorret Boomsma (2014) “Evolutionary mechanisms for loneliness”, Cognition & Emotion, vol. 28(1), p. 3-21.
Morrison, Philip and Rebekah Smith (2017): “Loneliness: An overview”, in Olivia Sagan and Eric Miller (eds.)(2017): Narratives of loneliness: Multidisciplinary perspectives from the 21st century, ch. 1, p. 11-25, Sept.
Stats NZ (2015), “Social networks help New Zealanders deal with change”, http://archive.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/people_and_communities/Well-being/social-connectedness/social-networks/deal-with-change.aspx.