Mentoring capitalizes on on our best evolutionary tendencies to combat loneliness: New research

Posted by Steve Koppes

New research has shown that reducing loneliness through meaningful connections can foster less self-centered, more pro-social behaviors, a finding that highlights the important role mentoring can play in reducing loneliness.

The findings also suggest a positive feedback loop between the two traits: As increased loneliness heightens self-centeredness, the latter then contributes further to enhanced loneliness.

“If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated,” says John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

The researchers write that “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.” Their study is the first to test a prediction from John Cacioppo and coauthor Stephanie Cacioppo’s evolutionary theory that loneliness increases self-centeredness.

This kind of research is important because, as many studies have shown, lonely people are more susceptible to a variety of physical and mental health problems as well as higher mortality rates than their non-lonely counterparts.

The outcome that loneliness increases self-centeredness was expected, but the data showing that self-centeredness also affected loneliness were a surprise, says Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Pritzker School of Medicine.

Evolution and loneliness

Early psychological research treated loneliness as an anomalous or temporary feeling of distress that had no redeeming value or adaptive purpose. “None of that could be further from the truth,” Stephanie Cacioppo says.

The evolutionary perspective is why. In 2006, John Cacioppo and colleagues proposed an evolutionary interpretation of loneliness based on a neuroscientific or biological approach.

In this view, evolution has shaped the brain to incline humans toward certain emotions, thoughts, and behavior. “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 coauthors write. From that perspective, loneliness serves as the psychological counterpart of physical pain.

“Physical pain is an aversive signal that alerts us of potential tissue damage and motivates us to take care of our physical body,” the researchers write. Loneliness, meanwhile, is part of a warning system that motivates people to repair or replace their deficient social relationships.

“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,” John Cacioppo says. “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.”

In modern society, becoming more self-centered protects lonely people in the short term but not the long term. That’s because the harmful effects of loneliness accrue over time to reduce a person’s health and well-being.

“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,” John Cacioppo says.

When humans are at their best, they provide mutual aid and protection, Stephanie Cacioppo adds. “It isn’t that one individual is sacrificial to the other. It’s that together they do more than the sum of the parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your interests at the expense of others.”

The Bottom Line for Mentors

This research demonstrates that the mentoring relationship means a lot more to our social, emotional, and physical health than we may realize, even going beyond the usual benefits of increased social support, navigating challenges, and other positive effects stemming from mentoring.

Loneliness can have a self-reinforcing effect on us. In other words, if loneliness is left unchecked, it can catch us in a cycle that leaves us feeling isolated. Other studies have shown that serious levels of perceived loneliness can be associated with a variety of negative outcomes.

For concerned mentors trying to help their mentee prevent feelings of loneliness, it is important to remember that just being around other people doesn’t mean a person isn’t lonely. It is possible to be alone in a room full of people. The key is meaningful connection.

For mentors, getting your mentee engaged can help build feelings of connectedness. Many programs have great tips for helping mentors to get to know their mentee’s interests, use those to foster relationships between your mentee and those around them.

By creating opportunities for your mentee to connect with others, you’re doing more than just building their social network and future opportunities. You’re helping them to join in on the cooperative behaviors that, as the researchers noted, mark when “humans are at their best.”

To read the original article, click here.

To read the research, click here.