Updated: Jan 27
With an upcoming post about the impact of touch on loneliness and mental health on the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network site, we were delighted to interview one of the Network Coordinators - Dr Eiluned (Ellie) Pearce.
Ellie is a Research Fellow and one of the two Coordinators for the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network at UCL. We had the pleasure of asking her about her research into various aspects of social connection and how this is vital for our wellbeing.
1) Please could you explain why social relationships are so important for humans? How and why do we benefit from these?
It’s likely that supportive social relationships have been crucial for our survival throughout our evolution: being part of a cohesive social network allows you to do things like cooperate in producing food and collective childcare, defend yourself against attack, and to learn new information and skills from others. This is just as much the case now as it would have been for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Nowadays we still need practical help, especially when we’re unwell (lifts to the hospital, someone to help with shopping), but we also need the emotional support that social relationships offer us. This feeling of emotional connection may have evolved so that we maintained the social relationships that facilitated our survival in more practical ways.
The work of Professor Robin Dunbar suggests that human social networks are made up of a set of layers, which differ in terms of the level of emotional intimacy (and the time investment required to get to that degree of closeness) and probably also function. Our 4 or 5 closest friends and family are those who we confide in, and who help buffer us against stress. In contrast, people who we see much less often and who we aren’t as close to are good sources of new information about, for example, job opportunities, or might be able to introduce us to a potential romantic partner - our closest ties probably have much of the same information as us. So we benefit in many different ways, and that really depends on the kind of relationship we’re talking about, and each type is likely to bring multiple and changing benefits.
2) What happens when we lack these social relationships?
When there is a mismatch between the number or quality of social relationships that we have and those we’d like to have, we experience a painful sense of loneliness. This doesn’t necessarily equate with either objective isolation or with solitude: the latter can be a choice with which an individual is perfectly happy. There seem to be different kinds of loneliness: emotional (where someone lacks a supportive intimate relationship, for example after experiencing bereavement), social (where someone does not feel as much a part of their community as they would like) and existential (wondering what one’s place is in the world, or lacking a sense of purpose).
The late John Cacioppo and others have suggested that loneliness may have evolved as a signal that an individual needs to reconnect with others because their survival is at stake, much like hunger encourages us to eat. It’s generally accepted that most people feel lonely at some point in their lives, often during transitions like leaving home or care, moving to a new city, becoming a parent, or retirement. The problem comes when the mechanism motivating us to seek (re)connection, for whatever reason (and we’re still trying to figure this out) fails to work, and instead the person becomes chronically lonely. It remains an empirical question as to what counts as ‘chronic’, but there is accumulating evidence that loneliness is associated with both physical illness (early mortality, impaired cognition, hypertension and cardiovascular disease) and mental health problems, like depression. A lot of work has been done on the physical health associations with loneliness, but there’s been less of a focus on the impact for mental health. In the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network, we’re trying to redress this balance, by bringing together research experts from diverse disciplines (from neuroscience to the environment), the third sector, practitioners, policy-makers and individuals with lived experience, in order to identify productive avenues for future research in understanding the links between loneliness, social isolation and mental health, and what we can do about addressing these issues.
3) What are some of the ways that we can improve social cohesion and connectedness?
Research that my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that behaviours like singing, dance and laughter can help create social bonds. We think this is through the release a chemical in the brain called β-endorphin. One of the studies we ran was a collaboration with the Workers’ Educational Association, in which we followed new groups of singers and non-singers (doing creative writing, or arts and crafts) over seven months, so see how their social relationships changed over time. By the end of the seven-months of weekly sessions, singers and non-singers felt equally close to their own groups. However, when we looked back at the start, when group members were strangers, we saw a fascinating difference. When we compared how close individuals felt to their group before and after their session, we found that singers showed a significantly larger increase in closeness after 90 minutes singing together, than creative writers or crafters did after 90 minutes of their activities. We call this this the ice-breaker effect of singing: belting out a tune seems to help bond large groups of strangers, and we also found that it boost participants' mood. So one way of improving our social cohesion and our wellbeing might be to join a choir, but this might only work if we want to do that: our research participants chose to join the different kinds of groups, they weren’t randomly allocated.
One of the effects that our participants reported was that they enjoyed seeing people from their group out and about in their local town – they had more acquaintances that they could greet and share a few words with as they ran their errands. My hunch is that any regular group activity based in a local community is likely to result in similar outcomes.
However, we also know that loneliness can be associated with cognitive biases, like a heightened sensitivity to the threat of rejection in ambiguous social situations and evaluating oneself very negatively. This means that opportunities for connection through joining a group activity might not be what’s needed, but rather some kind of psychological retraining. The evidence we have at the moment is that these kinds of cognitive interventions are actually more effective than social ones, but I think that what will help will really depend on the individual, their needs, and the reasons why they feel disconnected in the first place. So, activities like singing seem to be a good way to create a sense of community cohesion, but probably not for everyone. We need to do further research to understand the barriers to bonding that such individuals face so that we can help them in overcoming them.
4) Please could you talk about whether there is a link between individual genetic differences and the way people behave in social situations? Is it possible for people to change their behaviour if they have a predisposition for behaving in a certain way?
This is a really complicated area and I don’t think we have the answers yet. At a group level (that is, looking at the average across individuals in the sample) statistical associations have been found between variation in particular genes and social traits like how empathic someone is, whether they are more orientated towards short- or long-term sexual relationships, and the size of their social network. However, this really needs to be interpreted with caution because much more work needs to done to see whether these findings replicate in other samples. At an individual level these genetic differences are unlikely to have much effect, because there are many genes involved (so each has a very small effect), and of course an individual’s environment interacts with the expression of their genes as well. Human cognition and behaviour is very complex and there’s still much more to understand, but I speculate that if an individual becomes aware of any predisposition they might have towards acting in a particular way (whatever the underlying cause of that predisposition), they could choose to act in a different way.
5) Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything that we’ve missed that you’d like to share?
Thanks very much for your interest in this research, and if you’d like to keep up with the Network, please follow us @UCL_Loneliness.
Thank you very much for your time today, we look forward to following your future research!
About Dr Eiluned Pearce
Dr Ellie Pearce is an evolutionary anthropologist, with a specific interest in social connections. Following on from her doctorate at the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, her postdoctoral research in the Social and Evolutionary Research Group (SENRG) at the University of Oxford has explored group singing as a form of social bonding, and has also examined whether individual genetic profiles affect how people relate to others.
She is currently a Research Fellow in the Division of Psychiatry at University College London working on the causes of loneliness to help develop effective interventions. Aside from her academic work. Ellie has worked in the charity sector as a research consultant and as a practitioner, running a befriending scheme for older adults and activities for visually impaired children.