John T. Cacioppo is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago, the Director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and the Director of the Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.
Professor Cacioppo is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What is the status of loneliness in the United States?
Cacioppo: In the United States, we think about loneliness in a fashion where it’s a weakness. It’s a disease that is it’s the same thing as depression or it’s a personality disorder, perhaps an extraordinary introvert so much so that they are shy and unable to look or relate to others, and our research simply shows that is an error. At a broader societal level, I think the last half of the 20th century, we’ve seen this move toward individualism, really idealizing the mythic, rugged individualist. One of our cherished cultural statement is “United we stand, divided we fall.” I mean, we, as a society, understand the importance of working together and being a team. Some of our cherished stars in athletics have enormous team efforts behind them. We tend to only talk about the leader of that team, but without the team itself behind them, they wouldn’t be the stars or have made the physical achievements that they had made. So, it’s interesting. I see our culture as somewhat ambivalent about it, but I think there has been this move to celebrate a rugged, mythic individualist and to not recognize the importance of the underlying collective and its worth. I also see that changing. Both Obama and McCain in this election campaign are arguing for the importance of community efforts, the importance of rising above self interest. In Science 50 years ago, the most [impactful] work in many fields was being done by the solitary genius. That is no longer the case. The research clearly shows that science is now a team activity. And the most influential work in the Natural Sciences, in the Social Sciences, in patents and even in the Humanities are coming from team efforts, not from individual efforts. And that’s because the questions are so complicated, require so many different expertise to being brought bare at one time, no single individual has all the necessary expertise. So, in many ways, I see culturally a pendulum perhaps staring to swing back in the other direction. I think it’s, again, we’ve always realize the united we stand, and we’ve always realized that there are these teams beneath this celebrated individuals but I think we’re starting to recognize the importance of that underlying team. And so, I’m hopeful that we will start to celebrate not only the individual achievement but also the collective, because I think that’s actually more consistent with what human nature is fundamentally, and what makes us happy in the long term. People will live only self-interested lives end up at the end of their lives perhaps with money to give away, but how much money do you really want to give away at the end of your life. I mean, Ebenezer Scrooge is a story all about such individuals. And I think we’re starting to realize that a life lived well means a life lived with others.
Question: Are Americans coming closer together or are they becoming more isolated?
Cacioppo: The research to date still raises causes for concerns. In 1984, there was a national survey done in which people were asked how many confidants did you have and the most frequent answer was 3. Then, survey question was repeated in the early part of this decade and the most frequent answer was zero. That is a dramatic change. If you look at the number of individuals living alone in houses, it’s increased by 30% in the last 30 years. Now, partly this is because people are getting older and they’re losing their spouse through death, they’re losing children through going off to college or to jobs, but it’s not exclusively. Even when you look at the demography [NNH], you’d see an increase the number of individuals living alone and putting off having children, divorce rates being high, single parent households have increased, all of those are contributing to more isolated living. So, there are reasons for concern. I think as we understand human nature better, there will be a reason a little more impetus for that pendulum to start to swing back in the other direction.