Keshav Narula  •  
October 22, 2019
Oct 22, 2019

[Draft] Research: Loneliness

October 22, 2019
Note: This is a draft and it contains lots of unfinished yet raw thoughts.

My friend, Sergei, @SergeiChestakov, and I had done some initial research about social isolation, aka loneliness around March 2019, because we were shocked by how much we felt lonely and "alone" in college when hundreds and thousands of people were around us!

This topic really intrigued us given our situation. So, we wanted to study at loneliness from two folds:

  1. Behavioral — how and why we feel lonely from an evolutionary standpoint
  2. Environmental — how does our environment influence our social isolation

Human beings are social animals and we form our identities by the values lent to us from the groups we call our own. But when we feel lonely, our brain treats social and physical pain alike.

When people who had been put in a functional MRI scanning device played a computer game that allowed them to be rejected by other players, the areas of the brain that lit up when they were rejected were the same ones associated with physical pain.


While historically, we have attributed our dominance on the planet to our abstract reasoning, there is increasing evidence that our dominance as a species can be attributable to our ability to think socially.

John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago says that loneliness has evolved to protect us.

When you get hungry, it increases your attention to finding food. We think that loneliness is an aversive state that motivates you to attend to social connections.

So evolutionary, we are wired to be social for our basic need to survive. But I wondered if "loneliness is an inheritable trait" or not. Well, studies show that it is and "Oxytocin" plays a central role in this!

Oxytocin receptors come in several variants; the most prominent one is the GG genotype. If you may be more attuned to the emotions of others but also more sensitive to rejection and more likely to end up feeling lonely.

Why is GG the most common genotype? Because of evolutionary implications. For our ancestors, being attuned with people around them and having a stronger bond helped them survive, hence the GG genotype may have survived.

So far, not very surprising, but still interesting! Now, I wanted to take a look into how lonely people feel. Here are a couple of quotes that I found comment sections of a loneliness post:

At times I'm alone because I chose to be but I'm never lonely. I have friends who feel the same way. We have get-togethers when we want to, not because we have to.

People can become comfortable with being alone. Loneliness can be experienced in a crowd.
I would rather be alone than be with people that I cannot relate to in a meaningful way...I would rather be around my dogs than be around people with whom I have nothing in common."

This was a huge distinction I didn't make — being alone vs. feeling lonely.

Being alone correlates to feeling lonely, but does it cause loneliness? Perhaps. But there some studies show that low self-esteem correlates and causes loneliness. So while loneliness is an emotional response, being alone is a voluntary decision.

One thing that is clear is that people who are lonely feel lonely because they want to connect and meet people, but either they're afraid, "feel unwanted", or don't connect with people they're around. So what kind of people do they even "befriend"?

People that are similar to us. Why? We tend to like people that we share similarities with. Why?

  • Validation: someone likes what we like, thus it's okay to like what we like
  • Evaluation: we feel we're good people, so people who like what we like are good too
  • High Likeliness: we think people who are like us will like us more, thus we like them more
  • Fun & Exciting: it’s fun to hang out with someone when you have something in common

A study looked at digital footprints of 45k+ people, rather than self-reported data. The results showed that people with similar personalities, based on likes & word choices, were more likely to be friends. The association was even stronger between romantic partners.