John Cacioppo on Loneliness

Cacioppo:    Loneliness is the feeling that you’re socially isolated.  It’s related to being physically isolated from other people, but it’s not the same thing.  One can be lonely in a marriage, lonely in a family, they can be lonely in a crowd.  So we found it isn’t the number of contacts or the frequency of interaction with other people, it’s the quality of those interactions.  Freshmen who have gone to college find themselves among many, many other people, lots of social activities, they go to mixers, and they look around, everyone else is talking with other people and they’re sitting there, all alone in their head.  And so, that actually can make their feeling of isolation greater for that moment.  So, being around other people is not what makes people less lonely, it’s feeling connected to other people that makes them feel less lonely.

Question: How does loneliness differ from anxiety or depression?

Cacioppo:    Traditionally, loneliness and depression, loneliness and anxiety were treated as very similar constructs, so much so that one of the common measures of depression that’s used in epidemiology has, as one of the questions, “Do you feel lonely?”  Our own research and research of others have looked at whether loneliness and depression are the same thing and we find them to be separate constructs.  They’re separate mental states.  Our longitudinal research and our experimental research has shown that loneliness leads to increased depressive symptomatology.  So, if…  No matter how depressed you are today, if you’re feeling lonely today, you will be more depressed a year from now, above and beyond which our level of depression today would predict because of the loneliness.  We also find that depression lead you to withdrawal, so a difference in depression and loneliness is loneliness makes you want to reach out and contact other people, be a part of that group, be a part of that relationship.  Depression is associated with depressed affect but also with lethargy, kind of this withdrawal from others.  And, indeed, with depression, we find, over time, people do withdraw from others and that withdrawal and in the increased stress associated with that leads them to feel lonelier.  So, you have this pernicious feedback loop, the lonelier they are, the more depressed they’d become.  The depressed they are, the more they withdraw and the lonelier they become.  If you look at those two effects, though, the effect of loneliness and depression is stronger than the effect of depression on loneliness.  People can be depressed for other reasons and feeling lonely, but many people who go in to seek treatment for depression, at the root of the problem is their feeling of disconnection and isolation, and unless that’s treated, the depression or any attempt to fix that is really just kind of a transient band aid.  It’s not getting at the root problem.

Question: What are the symptoms of loneliness?

Cacioppo:    The measurement of loneliness is somewhat not obvious.  People know that they feel isolated.  They feel disconnected.  They don’t have others on whom they can rely or talk, but it’s mostly they don’t have a confidante.  They don’t have anyone who affirms who they are.  That’s part of it.  Now, if you ask people do they feel lonely, there tends to be this stigma associated with loneliness, I think, or research has suggested that it’s inappropriate stigma, but there’s nevertheless this stigma associated with loneliness.  So, people under report.  If you ask them, “Do you feel lonely?” they under report.  But if you ask them, are there others on whom they can rely, to whom they can relate and whom they can confide, that’s when you start to see people admitting this feeling of isolation.  There’s also this sense in which they don’t have a collective identity.  So, immediately after 9/11, when we all survived that tragedy, it made being an American salient.  That’s a social identity.  But, if you noticed, in this country, journalists were writing about the harmony, the goodwill that existed in America.  That was a step up of what had been felt a week before 9/11.  That’s part of being connected, and so, a lonely individual is also [absent at that] social identity and it may be in the form of feeling like you’re an American after a tragedy or [you might be a] Chicago Cubs or New York Yankee’s fan, these kinds of identity is a part of how we are connected to other individuals and other groups, and lonely individuals tend to lack those as well.

Question: How do we avoid being lonely?

Cacioppo:    There are several secrets to overcoming or avoiding loneliness.  I like to use the analog of hunger.  Loneliness has evolved because it has a very adaptive purpose.  We are fundamentally social species, but we need some signal when that important need isn’t being met, very much like hunger.  We need a reasonable level of blood sugar, else we don’t have the metabolic resources, the energy to pursue foraging and other activities.  When we start to have lower blood sugar levels, we become hungry, and that’s a signal that we should find food and eat and refuel.  If we ignore that hunger signal, if we think that somehow that’s stigmatizing, and so we simply persist in not pursuing any food and ignoring that signal, we can become so depleted of energy that we’re no longer able to seek that food.  So it can become chronic and deadly.  Loneliness is very much like that, and instead of sustaining us with calories, it sustains us with connections.  In evolutionary times, we were not able to fend off large, wild beasts very well, as individuals with a stick, nor were we able to take care of our offspring who have the longest period of abject dependency of any species, if we were simply solitary animals.  We are able to achieve reproduction, survival and/or offspring survival long enough so that they too reproduce because we acted as a group, as a collective.  So, finding yourself ostracized or separated from that group is a threatening, dangerous circumstance.  Recognizing that you’re also going to understand how the feeling of loneliness, the pain of loneliness, the threat that’s associated with this loneliness is a signal, very much like hunger, but it’s there to cue the need to reconnect, to protect that part of our existence, and if we respond to it as that cue, then it can be very healthy.  If you don’t respond to that cue, then you can fall into the grips of chronic loneliness, and that has, as I suggested, very deleterious mental, psychological effects, but also physiological effects.

John Cacioppo explains how loneliness differs from anxiety and depression.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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