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Perhaps We're More Self-Centered Because We're Lonely

New research finds the two traits are mutually reinforcing.
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Two troubling societal trends have been widely decried in recent years. According to much research, Americans are both getting more narcissistic, and more isolated and lonely.

Newly published research suggests these seemingly separate tendencies may actually be reinforcing one another. It presents evidence that loneliness increases self-centeredness, and—to a smaller degree—self-centeredness leads to loneliness.

The two traits appear to be connected in "a positive feedback loop," writes a University of Chicago research team led by psychologist John Cacioppo. "A naturally occurring increase in loneliness heightens self-centeredness, which then contributes to subsequent increases in loneliness."

Writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Cacioppo and his colleagues describe a decade-long study featuring 229 Chicago-area residents who were born between 1935 and 1952. The group included a mix of people from various ethic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Have some sympathy for the old guy sitting on his porch and yelling at the neighbor kids to "Get off my lawn." He's probably just lonely.

Participants were between the age of 50 and 68 when they joined the study in 2002 or 2003; they were surveyed in person annually for the next 10 years. Each year, they filled out a series of questionnaires, including one designed to measure loneliness, another designed to gauge self-centeredness, and others revealing symptoms of depression or negative mood.

The researchers found that, even after taking mood and various demographic variables into account, "loneliness in the current year predicts self-centeredness in the subsequent year."

"We also found the effect to be reciprocal," they add. "The small but apparent influence of self-centeredness on loneliness is noteworthy, because it reveals yet another factor that may contribute to the development and/or maintenance of loneliness in real-world contexts."

The researchers argue their findings can be best explained by evolutionary psychology. Loneliness, they argue, signals personal danger, in that you don't have a robust support system to protect you from harm, or come to your assistance if needed.

Because of this, loneliness leads people in contradictory directions: It increases the motivation to make more social connections, but it "also promotes an emphasis on short-term self-preservation."

This leads people to focus on their own needs, which has the unfortunate effect of increasing self-centeredness and decreasing one's appeal to potential friends.

"Although the effect in any single year may be small," the researchers write, this ongoing dynamic "may set in process a motion in middle-aged or older adults, who find themselves feeling increasingly isolated from others over time."

The good news is this understanding could point to a way out of this unfortunate spiral. While withdrawing to a place of supposed safety may be a natural reaction to social isolation, the researchers argue that refocusing on "mutual interests and welfare"—say, by becoming politically active—could be a big part of the solution.

So have some sympathy for the old guy sitting on his porch and yelling at the neighbor kids to "Get off my lawn." He's probably just lonely.