Reframing the Loneliness Epidemic

What exactly is loneliness?

  • Before Coronavirus: You’re at home on a Friday night because you couldn’t find someone to go out with. You see on social media that your friends have been hanging out without you.
  • During Coronavirus: You’re social distancing with frequent Zoom calls, but you do not really feel supported. You have a bad day and do not have anyone to talk to about it.

For all the talk about loneliness, research and solutions are lacking.

  • Masi et al. (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of 20 randomized studies designed to reduce loneliness; it revealed a small effect size.
  • Dickens et al. (2011) reviewed 32 studies on loneliness and concluded ‘there is a need for well-conducted studies to improve the evidence base’.
  • Gardiner et al. (2018) looked at 38 studies on older populations and isolation, and they concluded ‘the quality of the evidence base is weak, and further research is required to provide more robust data’.
  1. Genetics: The estimate of genetic contributions to variation in adult loneliness is 48% (Boomsma & Willemsen, 2005).
  2. Demographics: Age is inversely associated with loneliness (Schnittker, 2007), in that people tend to become lonelier as they get older. Also, females tend to be more lonely than males.
  3. Life Circumstances: Having a healthy marriage helps (Olson & Wong, 2001) (Schnittker, 2007), but retirement hurts (Hansson & Briggs, 1990), and so does unemployment (Viney, 1985).
  4. Cyclical: Lonely people expect rejection, and in so doing, they ruminate on social and interpersonal information to the degree that they feel social anxiety and do not reach out. This becomes a negative feedback loop that’s very hard to get out of (Gardner & Pickett, 2005).

How can we reframe the problem?

How do we prevent people from becoming lonely in the first place?

How Can We Increase Friendship?

Two men sit at a table having a conversation.

Why are we not, by now, overwhelmed with close companions? If the recipe for closeness is so well known, why are we not all using it?

Our Studies: How Can We Prompt Deeper Conversations?

Study 1

Attendees sit in chairs facing a screen at the front of a room.
Photo of attendees from the networking event
  • Just Network: In two of the groups we asked attendees to spend the time networking as they normally would with other attendees.
  • Low Guidance: In two of the groups we asked attendees to avoid small talk, but we gave no clear guidance on what they should talk about.
  • Strong Rules: For two of the groups we provided conversational cards with probing questions like: “What life experience made you grow the most?” and “What is a compliment you wished you received more?” These groups were required to use these cards to direct their conversation.
A set of three cards asks questions about growing up, friendship, and life decisions.
Example of some cards that were used in the “Strong Rules” condition

What happened?

What implications can we take away from this first finding?

Two people wearing masks sit and converse on opposite ends of a park bench.

Study 2

  1. Conversations About the Future: Question prompts that asked about one’s future, e.g. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
  2. Conversations About the Past: Question prompts that asked about one’s past, e.g. “What is something surprising about your childhood?
  3. Activity: A control 30-minute icebreaker activity, without any conversational prompts. The icebreaker activities were interactive but did not focus on conversation depth. They included short games like blind wine tasting and a challenge to “draw a bicycle” (Lawson, 2006).
  • It did not matter if people discussed their future plans or their past experiences.
  • What did matter was if there were conversational prompts to guide the discussion. Although all participants came to the event hoping to increase social connections, the control group was not as successful as their prompt-receiving counterparts.
  • With both types of conversation prompts, people revealed more about themselves, felt others revealed more, and talked about more new things than in the control condition.



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Irrational Labs

Irrational Labs

Irrational Labs is a product design company that creates behavioral change for good.

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