Lonely People Become Self-centered as an Evolutionary Response to Protect Themselves

Lonely man
A lone man sitting listens to a band play in Hyde Park, London, 1935. Scientists have found loneliness increases self-centeredness, creating a cycle that becomes harder to break. General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

People become self-centered when they feel lonely because it helps protect them from harm, scientists have said. This response would have emerged as a means of self-preservation, but in modern society it has the potential to become a destructive cycle—where self-centeredness leads to increasing isolation—which in turn makes a person more self-centered.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers from the University of Chicago discovered this feedback loop between the two behaviors. "If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated," lead author John Cacioppo said in a statement.

Cacioppo first predicted the link between self-centeredness and loneliness over a decade ago. He suggested loneliness may have served an adaptive purpose—the pain of loneliness motivates people to go out and find companionship, which at one point in human history would have led to group safety.

But this comes with a downside. "Loneliness not only increases a motivation to attend to and approach others, but it also promotes an emphasis on short-term self-preservation, including (a) an increase in implicit vigilance for social threats, and, at least in humans, (b) an increase in the extent to which an individual responds in a fashion that reflects concern for his or her own interests and welfare," the authors wrote.

In effect, without the mutual aid and protection being part of a group offers, a person must become more focused on their own interests—becoming more self-centered. In modern society, however, this short-term response to loneliness does not necessarily lead to a boost in sociability. Instead, it leads to further isolation.

"This evolutionarily adaptive response may have helped people survive in ancient times, but in contemporary society, it may well make it harder for people to get out of feelings of loneliness," Cacioppo said.

Understanding how and why people become lonely is hugely important. Previous research has shown how loneliness increases the risk of physical and mental health problems, and can lead to an early death.

In the study, the team looked at 11 years' worth of data that was taken as part of the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study. This included information on 229 individuals who were between the ages of 50 and 68 at the start of the study. They were randomly selected, and included a diverse sample of society in terms of their ethnicity, age, gender and socioeconomic status.

Participants completed psychological surveys—including details on feelings of loneliness and social isolation, and a test to measure an individual's self-centeredness. Their analysis showed self-centeredness in one year could be used to predict loneliness in the following year.

The findings provide a real-world observation of Cacioppo's theory, supporting the evolutionary model and potentially giving a new insight into different factors that cause loneliness.

Identifying a feedback system that causes people to become lonelier means researchers can now try to identify a way to break the cycle. "Targeting self-centeredness as part of an intervention to lessen loneliness may help break a positive feedback loop that maintains or worsens loneliness over the years," the team concludes.