Social Isolation: The Perils of Going It Alone

Food and water may be the basic needs for survival, but they aren't sufficient to really live. If your health across the various dimensions of your life has a common influence, it is your interconnectedness with other people. Like other primates, people are social animals and keenly sensitive to their connections with others. Whether at work, home, or in society, your interactions are mutual exchanges of self-expression and feedback, that orient you to your values, your sense of who you are, and your role on the world's stage. Social connection can help unlock the full potential of your human experience, or leave you feeling crushingly unfulfilled, and physically, cognitively, and psychologically impaired, when it's absent.* 

In the 1960s and 1970s, Harry Harlow, a luminary of psychodynamic psychology, was the first to delve deeply into the nature of our innate need for interpersonal relationships, by studying monkeys. After isolating baby monkeys for a period of time, he introduced them to his famous (to psychology students, anyway) surrogate monkey mothers made of either bare wire or cloth-covered wire. He found that they clung to the cloth mothers, ignoring the alternative (a food-bearing wire mother) other than to feed. The rudimentary nature of the cloth surrogates (they looked like paint rollers) only highlighted the strength of primates’ innate drive for intimacy and physical contact.

Harlow’s research supported the theory of another luminary, John Bowlby, that the quality of maternal attachment and nurturing is a strong determinant of a child's healthy development. More generally, while the need to be with others is innate, the ability to interact with them and actually derive benefit is cultivated through experience. We need to see ourselves reflected in another's eyes, as worthy of (perhaps in order of ascending desirability) acknowledgment, attention, concern, or affection. Studies of primates and humans over the subsequent decades would provide more support, and the idea would come to be known as attachment theory. It continues to inform psychological theory and practice with people of all ages. (Although nowadays it is known that the quality of a child’s bond with its primary caregiver, regardless of sex, is what’s important. So, mothers, you’re not alone on the hook.)

So, what exactly happens when we are chronically alone? Harlow explored the outer limits of this question with his very unfortunate monkeys. He raised them in partial isolation (see-through wire cages) or total isolation (no visual or tactile cues of other life) for periods ranging from three to 12 months; later he would isolate them for years at a time. When they were finally introduced to non-isolated monkeys, all of them exhibited impaired ability to get along, or interact at all, with others when they were released. Often they would just rock back and forth in the corner of their cage.

While the least-isolated monkeys were able to recover to some extent through exposure to non-isolated monkeys, the most- and longest-isolated of them were permanently scarred: their ability to forge social connections was “obliterated,” and they exhibited all manner of disordered behavior. Some began to mutilate themselves. The female ones didn’t make very good mothers either, often being apathetic or violent toward their offspring; lethally so in some cases.**

Fortunately, Harlow’s work wasn’t replicated with human babies. However, modern studies of children raised with minimal human contact in Eastern European orphanages have revealed enduring effects of elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels, impulsivity, attention deficits, perceptual and motor skill deficits, and physical and cognitive developmental delays

While we may know intuitively that isolation is bad for children, what about adults? One might think that with their greater autonomy and better-developed sense of self, adults are better able to make it on their own, but this isn't borne out by epidemiological research. Having little or no social contact can cause a variety of physical maladies, such as tuberculosis, complications during pregnancy, blood chemistry, slower wound healing, obesity, impaired immune system response, and two- to four times higher rates of mortality, both among people with pre-existing health conditions, and healthy people. It may even promote cancer

In fact, social isolation poses a risk to health at least as great as that of smoking (based on evidence that exceeds that offered in the original Surgeon General’s report on smoking). Even the normally positive effects on the brain of physical exercise, such as running, can be converted into negative ones when the activity is performed solo. Psychological and behavioral problems for socially isolated adults include higher rates of neuroticism, depression, alcoholism, sleep disruption, and accidents.

Adults often compensate for inadequacy in some areas of their lives by diverting energy to others. For instance, people lacking romantic relationships may pour more time into their career, while others who find their career unfulfilling may view it as merely a job, and instead devote their energies to weekend hobbies. The basic need for the company of others isn't really satisfiable by other means, though.

That's because, as with most fundamental aspects of human health and behavior, there is a deep-seated evolutionary basis for it. One explanation is that there was safety and greater likelihood of survival for individuals within cooperative groups. Lone hunter-gatherers, unfazed by being alone, might have had more food to eat, but they and their offspring had better odds of survival within a community of others who returned to camp each day to share resources and care for each other. As descendents of the survivors, social isolation is very unpleasant for us and serves as a very effective punishment (e.g., ostracism, solitary confinement, banishment), whereas brain scans show that cooperation with others lights up our brains in the same way as when we're being rewarded.

Periods of insufficient social support aren’t entirely without their upsides. You may feel lonely or bored, and become motivated to cultivate new social connections for their own sake (to get out and have more fun, for instance) and find that the positive feelings you derive from your interactions spill over into other areas of your life, and energize your pursuit of other healthy goals. It also works the other way: while some people cope with isolation in unhealthy ways, like using substances, others use it as an opportunity for growth. Isolation can inspire you to redouble your efforts to make changes in your life that connect you with others who share your values or your desire to be happier and more fulfilled.

In this way, a period of isolation, long or short, can serve as the basis for a redemptive life narrative: it's an opportunity to rebound from an adverse situation, and develop new skills and a fresh perspective on life. The same mechanism can be seen on a macro level, among historically isolated, oppressed groups who circled the wagons to cultivate strength and support among themselves, and emerged with a unified identity and purpose.

Clearly, though, isolation is best taken in small doses or avoided altogether, if you can help it. In future articles, I’ll discuss the specific qualities of relationships that best meet our needs, and whether it may be better in some situations to have a negative relationship than none at all. Also, I'll cover the difference between being alone and feeling lonely, and why people sometimes kick you when you’re down (or up). In the meantime, know that social connection is the mortar that binds the various dimensions of your life—psychological, physical, vocational, and even ethical—into a solid structure.


*  In this context, taking time to be alone to pursue interests or recharge your batteries isn’t what social isolation means, but rather the chronic absence of others in your life. Certain qualities of social connections affect your wellbeing in different ways, which I’ll discuss in a future article.

**  Soon after these experiments, Harlow began to induce psychopathology in baby monkeys deliberately, using increasingly sadistic methods, which perhaps explains why the discussion of his work often stops at the cloth-covered surrogate mothers.

About the Author: 

Jim Hjort, MSW

Jim holds a BA from UCLA in Sociology and Abnormal Psychology, and an MSW from USC, with a concentration in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. He also holds the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Jim directs the Right Life Project, appears at speaking and teaching engagements, and has a private consulting and meditation instruction practice.

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