A new research
from the University of Chicago found that while earlier studies showed how loneliness can lead to self-centeredness, self-centeredness increases loneliness as well--but to a lesser extent. This, nonetheless, creates a positive feedback loop between the two behaviors.
“If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated,” said John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of the study.
With this 11-year study (from 2002 to 2013), the researchers gathered 229 individuals of varying gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status aged 50 to 68 at the start of the experiment. Instead of looking at loneliness from a psychological standpoint, the researchers looked at it from an evolutionary view.
“A variety of biological mechanisms have evolved that capitalize on aversive signals to motivate us to act in ways that are essential for our reproduction or survival," the authors write in their paper. From this view, loneliness is the psychological equivalent of physical pain.
This backs up the contention that loneliness increases self-centeredness. “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. “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." Self-centeredness helped ancient humans thrive in those times.
But times are changing. And in modern society, being self-centered may have protected lonely people but only for quite some time and not in the long run. "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,” he said.
However, it is noted that people provide mutual aid and protection when they are at their best. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. "Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your interests at the expense of others,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, co-author of the study.
As stated in their paper, perhaps “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”.
However, it could be just about balancing things out. We don't always get to be social and do things for other people but we don't get to be so into ourselves that we forget about others as well.