Lonely? Take the Focus Off Yourself, Study Suggests

A teen boy stands against a wall, alone.
(Image credit: peresanz/Shutterstock)

When people feel lonely, they may become more self-centered, which, in turn, can make them even lonelier, thus fueling a vicious cycle, according to a new study.

The results suggest that self-centeredness may prolong loneliness. "If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated," study co-author John Cacioppo, a professor in psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, said in a statement.

But the study also suggests a new strategy for treating loneliness: finding ways to curb self-centeredness when you're feeling isolated. "Targeting self-centeredness as part of an intervention to lessen loneliness may help break" the cycle, the researchers wrote in their study, published June 13 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In the study, the researchers analyzed information from about 230 adults ages 50 to 68 who were living in the Chicago area. The participants answered questions about their feelings of loneliness and self-centeredness every year from 2002 to 2013. [7 Personality Traits That Are Bad for You]

The study found that a person's level of loneliness in a given year predicted their level of self-centeredness in the following year. In other words, people who felt lonely in a given year of the study tended to be more self-centered the next year. This finding held even after the researchers took into account other factors that might explain the link between loneliness and self-centeredness, such as how depressed people felt.

This finding fits the researchers' views on why people feel lonely, from an evolutionary perspective. The researchers hypothesized that, throughout human evolution, loneliness — or being without the aid and protection of others — could be dangerous to an individual. Lonely people who became more focused on their own interests and welfare would have increased their chances of survival, according to the researchers' hypothesis.

The study also found that being self-centered in a given year predicted being lonely the next year, although the effect of self-centeredness on loneliness was not as strong as the effect of loneliness on self-centeredness, the researchers said. The researchers were surprised to find the effect of self-centeredness on loneliness; they did not originally hypothesize that link.

The finding is important "because it reveals yet another factor that may contribute to the development and/or maintenance of loneliness in real-world contexts," the researchers said. Future strategies for helping people who are lonely might be more effective if they increased people's attention to and concern for the interests and welfare of others, the researchers said, although more studies are needed to prove this idea.

Future studies could also look at how long it takes for feelings of loneliness to start influencing feelings of self-centeredness, and how people's social interactions affect the relationship between loneliness and self-centeredness, the researchers said.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.