Loneliness and Self-Centeredness Amplify Each Other in a Vicious Feedback Loop

A decade-long research project finds that self-centeredness may have aided ancient humans in difficult times, but might now be an out-dated evolutionary response.

If you're feeling lonesome, 200,000 years of evolution would like to have a word with you.

A University of Chicago psychological study, backed by the National Institute on Aging, concludes ten solid years of research into the relationship between loneliness and self-centeredness. The research supports an emerging evolutionary-biological theory, which suggests that the unpleasant feeling we call loneliness has long served a critical function in the evolution of the species.

According to the theory, evolution has shaped the human brain — on a neurological or chemical level — to tend toward specific thoughts and emotions in response to particular situations. When these emotions are negative, they serve as aversive signals that encourage us to change our behavior.

Loneliness is one such aversive signal, and it’s designed to motivate us to “get back out there” — to take deliberate action toward maintaining, repairing, or replacing our social relationships. From a psychological perspective, loneliness can be considered the emotional counterpart of physical pain. Just as pain warns of tissue damage, loneliness warns of social relationship damage.

Acting upon loneliness is important for the survival of the species, according to psychologist John Cacioppo, co-author of the new paper and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

"Humans evolved to become such a powerful species in large part due to mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that proved adaptive in social interactions," Cacioppo said in a statement. "When we don't have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare. That is, we become more self-centered."

RELATED: Loneliness Raises Risk of Heart Disease, Stroke

This is where the new research comes in. Published today in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the paper indicates that loneliness does indeed increase self-centeredness. What's more, self-centeredness also increases loneliness, which can lead to a kind of vicious cycle for certain susceptible individuals. There's probably a joke in here about 3:00am Oval Office tweetstorms, but we better just stick to the science.

The findings are based on responses from 229 individuals randomly drawn from the general population. The subjects — middle-aged and older Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian men and women — varied in age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

The indication that loneliness increases self-centeredness was expected, but the data showing that self-centeredness also affected loneliness was a surprise. By crunching the survey data, the research team established that loneliness and self-centeredness generate what's known as a positive feedback loop.

"If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated," said Cacioppo, "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.”

From a clinical point of view, establishing the two-way relationship between loneliness and self-centeredness can lead to improved therapies and interventions. In modern society, becoming more self-centered can protect lonely people in the short term – but not the long term. Multiple previous studies have demonstrated negative long-term effects of loneliness, for both mental and physical health.

“Targeting self-centeredness as part of an intervention to lessen loneliness may help break a positive feedback loop that maintains or worsens loneliness over time,” the researchers suggest in the new research paper.

So the next time you're feeling self-centered or lonely, knock it off and get to a party. Do it for the species, won't you?

WATCH: Why Loneliness Can Be Deadly