On one level, this finding may seem counterintuitive — after all, aren’t lonely people often alone? But social scientists say that loneliness is defined more by the quality of a person’s relationships and perceived social isolation, than the actual number of friends or family members he or she may have. So we can feel unbearably lonely even if we’re not alone — and it is the negative or distrustful behavior lonely people often exhibit that is infectious.
“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, leader of the study and one of the nation’s leading scholars of loneliness. “On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”