I was reminded of Cacciopo and Patrick’s Loneliness, which I’ve just finished reading, when I came across this summary of a study that showed that people who feel rejected are better at spotting fake smiles. Loneliness is a good read overall, but I wasn’t too satisfied by the section on the adaptive value of loneliness. A central point the authors make is that the self-defeating nature of loneliness can be attributed to the fact that the human brain is an amalgamation of mechanisms that had different contributions to fitness in different environments. Changing environments through the ages led to a multiplicity of mechanisms that can at times act at cross-purposes to each other. As one of my teachers used to say, evolution leads to ‘solutions’ that are just kludges upon kludges. A mechanism that is composed of such kludges will often have certain quirks that don’t make sense from a purely functional point of view:
Loneliness, as we have seen, is a great enabler of such conflicts, causing us to seek warmth and companionship while at the same time allowing fearful perceptions to make us harsh and critical towards those we wish to be near.
This was part of a greater… conflict that made me uneasy about the book’s points. Repeatedly, we are presented with evidence that the mental and behavioural manifestations of loneliness are self-reinforcing in an unproductive way: the lonelier you feel, the less likely you are to behave in a way that invites or encourages companionship, and you are less likely to behave in such a way partly because loneliness also distorts your view of the world such that you are less inclined to do things that normally would help to alleviate loneliness. So how true is it that loneliness causes people to seek out more warmth and companionship? How effective a ‘stick’ is loneliness? Throughout Loneliness, there were mentions of how the drop in self-esteem and other mental distortions that come with loneliness cause people to not contact their friends because they assume in advance that they will be rejected. That’s hardly a sign of loneliness motivating people to seek warmth. Also, it seems that loneliness dulls our natural emotional reward systems: lonely people don’t derive as much pleasure from everyday things as do non-lonely people. It seems, if I may say so, to completely fuck up our system of emotional carrots and sticks. But if so, then how could we say that it acts as a an evolutionary ‘stick’ to keep us socially well-connected? Surely, to be selected for, the ‘stick’ has to work, instead of being a net demotivator. Or is it just that it worked in the past, and doesn’t work now (the EEA and all that)?
We can also see this conflict in the study about fake smiles I linked to above. On the one hand, BPS reports the authors of the study saying that
The last thing you need if you’re feeling rejected is to waste time pursuing friendships with people who aren’t genuinely interested… we’ve actually evolved a perceptual adaptation to rejection that helps prevent this from happening.
But being more in touch with reality isn’t necessarily adaptive, as the BPS blogger notes:
In the same way that unrealistically positive beliefs about the self can guard against depression, perhaps it would be more helpful to a socially excluded person to tone down their sensitivity to fake smiles. After all, just because a stranger gives you a fake smile doesn’t mean they aren’t a potential friend – they may just have had a bad day.
Cacciopo and Patrick also repeatedly make the point that the way to get over loneliness is to get over the barrier of negativity that causes one to interpret social interactions negatively when one is lonely. So again, which is adaptive? Correctly (if cynically) diagnosing a lack of interest in interacting in your conversational counterpart, or being over-optimistic over people’s interest in you? If each is adaptive in different situations, why is it that loneliness almost always seems to be a net negative in terms of one’s physical and mental health? I don’t think Cacciopo and Patrick’s point about the brain containing sometimes opposing carrot-and-stick mechanisms helps here. If it is almost always advantageous to be overly optimistic about social interactions, why are lonely people almost always not that? If it really was a case of opposing mechanisms, then one would expect cynical realism to be adaptive for a sizeable proportion of social contexts. Yet, it seems, optimism is still the better option most of the time.