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: Can technology make us lonely?
Cacioppo: The effects of technology on our social connectiveness is interesting because it’s neither bringing us together nor separating us alone. There was a study done about 15 years ago where individuals were given access to the Internet, and what they found was that access to the Internet increased feelings of loneliness. It didn’t decrease. Now, the reason that happened was because people were replacing social engagements with time online. They have subsequently found that if you are isolated, perhaps because of a physical disability or a stigma, the Internet decreases levels of loneliness because now you have connections that were not provided before. What other researchers suggested is that if one uses the Internet not as a replacement for actual contact and communication but as a way to promote that contact, then it decreases loneliness. If I’m using it to coordinate where my friend and I can meet so we can go biking together or go out to dinner together, then that’s the use of technology that is decreasing. And the reason relying on technology as a replacement is diminishing connection, if it’s used to replace it, is actually simple to see but non-obvious at first. If you simply watch people walking, they have their own pace, their own gestures. If you have them walk together, you see them become synchronized, right? Now, their pace is the same. Their gestures are the same. They look like a unit rather than two individuals. The extent to which they look like a unit, they’re synchronized is called resonance. The greater the resonance between those individuals, you ask them how they feel about each other, the more rapport they will report and the more they’ll like one another. We know this from experiments where one of those two was a Confederate and was [veering] whether they fell in resonance with the other individual or not, right? All of this occurs in normal circumstances unconsciously. We’re completely unaware of it. But that can’t happen through text or voice or even avatar-mediated circumstances. It’s something that’s [aren’t mere neurons] in our brains are adjudicating. It’s something that we need not attend to and it’s something that influences us in a way that we are completely insensitive to.
Question: What should internet junkies do to improve their social habits?
Cacioppo: If someone were living their life on the internet and were doing that instead of what they have been doing and that’s to engage on actual face-to-face contact, I would ask them what the effects on them were, whether they felt more connected or less connected and why. I spoke recently to a man with autistic syndrome and he explained that he at points felt lonely and he found that it was very difficult for him to interact with other individuals. Most individuals have eye contact. They like eye contact. Eye contact helps people synchronize. There’s a research showing that individuals with autistic syndrome do not like eye contact. Find it very aversive. I asked this individual if that’s what his experience, he said, yes, absolutely. And, you know, any manner of interacting is fine but it’s about achieving that resonance. And, as I ask him a few more questions, he does have a few good friends and they are similarly disinclined to eye contact. They have a resonance but it’s through a different means than individuals without autistic syndrome. And so, either is fine but it’s important to find that match. If this retreat to the internet was an improvement because of a mismatch, knowing that, well, but it’s not about trying to relate to everybody, it’s about trying to relate to people who are similar, finding that right resonance. If they were unhappy with the internet alone, then that’s give them an alternative. If by communicating only through the internet, it was better than the alternative, then I have no qualms with that. But one of the features is there are alternatives and it’s not about relating. So often we think we should have, everybody should be our friends. Everybody I meet should like me, and that’s not, that’s actually not the secret of our research. We’re a connected species but the secret of connectivity is very much like computers. If a computer was connected with everyone, it wouldn’t be able to do much of anything. It’s about being selectively connected, about finding those good matches. And it doesn’t take very many. That’s the remarkable thing. And extrovert and introvert can be lonely or connected. The extrovert might take two, three good relationships while an introvert might just take one. It’s achievable by everyone now.