Khazan: Why do people who are lonely interpret social situations more negatively?
Cacioppo: There’s two ways to think about it. One is what’s going on pre-attentively, and one that's going on consciously. [For example,] when you get hungry, you can feel it, you want to have some food. Its purpose is to motivate you to seek food before you are so low on fuel that you can no longer have the energy [to do so].
And loneliness motivates you to repair or replace connections that you feel are threatened or lost. So people pay more attention to social information because they’re motivated to reconnect.
So in hunger, you are [much] more sensitive to bitter than to sweet tastes. The reason for that development is that bitter tastes, evolutionarily speaking, were associated with poisons. What that means is if you’re really hungry, you’re going to spit out palatable, bitter food even though you’re trying to find something to keep you alive.
Same thing with loneliness. If you look at early humans and other hominids, they were not uniformly positive toward each other. We exploit each other, we punish each other, we threaten each other, we coerce. And so it isn't that I want to connect with anyone, I need to worry about friend or foe. Just like bitter versus sweet, poison vs. non poison, if I make an error and detect a person as a foe who turns out to be a friend, that's okay, I don’t make the friend as fast, but I survive.
But if I mistakenly detect someone as a friend when they're a foe, that can cost me my life. Over evolution, we’ve been shaped to have this bias.
That sets up an expectation, because what I expect is often what I see. If I think you're going to be hostile, I'm going to answer questions very differently than if I trust you.
You’re motivated to connect. But promiscuous connection with others can lead to death. A neural mechanism kicks in to make you a little skeptical or dubious about connecting.
Khazan: Some studies have found that creating more opportunities for social interaction, or even improving social skills, doesn’t really help reduce loneliness. Why not?
Cacioppo: Social interaction is sometimes called social engagement, basically the idea there is that loneliness can be cured by putting people together. As in, if they're not alone, they wont feel lonely. Colleges think this, which is why they have mixers. You remember mixers in college? They don't work.
Being with others doesn’t mean you’re going to feel connected, and being alone doesn’t mean you're going to feel lonely. It can, but usually we choose to be alone.
A new mother with a newborn she loves—loves playing with the baby—that does not mean the husband shouldn’t give her a break, let her go off and regenerate, have some time to herself, so that she can return and continue to be absolutely generous and loving and adoring. That time alone enhances social connections, it doesn’t contract it.