Increasing loneliness increases selfishness, and more the self-centered you are, the lonelier you tend to become.
Loneliness has already been linked to a whole host of ill effects—in fact, social isolation may be just as harmful to your health as obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse, and high blood pressure, as we reported. But it’s also possible it could affect your personality in a way that may actually make your loneliness worse, which is what researchers wanted to test in this new study.
In their experiment, researchers recruited 229 people, and measured their rates of loneliness and self-centeredness over 10 years. They discovered that if the participants’ loneliness ratings increased, they tended to score higher on measures of self-centeredness, too.
Problem is, the rise in self-centeredness also predicted further jumps in loneliness, suggesting a cycle between the two: Increasing loneliness increases selfishness, and more the self-centered you are, the lonelier you tend to become.
The mental pain of loneliness serves an evolutionary benefit, the researchers explained in a statement. It warns people to focus on repairing or replacing social connections that just aren’t working—since, if they were isolated, their survival may be in greater jeopardy.
Self-centeredness, on the other hand, also played an evolutionary benefit. If you didn’t have the backing of a group protecting you, well, you had to look out for your own interests. But that doesn’t bode well for getting back into the group’s good graces afterwards.
“This evolutionarily adaptive response may have helped people survive in ancient times, but in contemporary society may well make it harder for people to get out of feelings of loneliness,” study author John Cacioppo, Ph.D., said in the statement.
So the researchers weren’t surprised that feeling lonely increased selfishness, but the finding that it was reciprocal was new. But it has important implications, they say: Working on self-centeredness, then, may be able to break the cycle, and help relieve feelings of loneliness, allowing people to make stronger connections with others.