A study of the University of Chicago (UChicago) found that people who report feeling lonely also say they sit or stand physically farther away from close friends and family, and their "personal space" for intimate partners is larger than those who report less loneliness, adjusting for marital status and other factors such as gender, anxiety and depression.
In two experiments, the researchers at UChicago surveyed nearly 600 U.S.-based men and women on how far they preferred to sit or stand near different groups of people, including friends and family, romantic partners and acquaintances. On average, loneliness doubles the odds of someone staying farther away from those in their closest circle of intimacy. It had no effect on how far they preferred to stand from acquaintances or strangers.
The effect persists even when scientists adjusted for how much social interaction the person experiences; for example, those who felt lonely despite high levels of social interaction still kept their distances.
"You can feel alone even in a crowd or in a marriage-loneliness is really a discrepancy between what you want and what you have," said Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and senior author of the study.
This fits with the evolutionary model of loneliness, which suggests that even though loneliness might be expected to prompt people to move closer to others, it also increases an individual's short-term self-preservation instincts, triggering an instinct to stay farther away.
Previous studies using neuroimaging techniques found that lonelier individuals also exhibit heightened vigilance for social threats, such as social rejection or interpersonal hostility.
"This 'survival mode' means that even though a lonely person wants more social interaction, they may still unconsciously keep their distance," Cacioppo said. "The hope is that by bringing this to conscious attention, we can reduce the incidence of divorce as a byproduct of loneliness and increase meaningful connections among people."
The study was published in PLOS ONE on Sept. 6.