VM: Loneliness has been characterized in reference to feelings of distress and dysphoria resulting from a mismatch between a person’s desired and achieved levels of social relations. In some of your latest papers you suggest that the experience of loneliness is not a uniquely human phenomenon but that, as any other adaptive predispositions, it can be found across phylogeny. In what sense can we say that animals desire social relations and experience loneliness?
SC: We begin by assuming that certain experiences are privileged to human beings but the more we understand about how human experience arises from the way the brain works, the more we find that there are small or vestigial versions of even the most esoteric human experiences in other animals. Most animals, for example monkeys and mammals, broadly speaking, are to some extent, social. They often have to interact with one another to reproduce, to raise the young. Often they have social strategies beyond just those simple biological processes that involve group defence, group signalling and pack behaviours for defensive purposes or to coordinate on resource acquisition.
So clearly there is a sociality to animals, even relatively simple animals and I think where people might say there is something distinctive for humans is the way we think about that or the emotional experiences we have. It is difficult to say that these things don’t happen in animals because we cannot talk to animals and understand their emotional states. So, before we knew how emotional systems work or even how social processes affect the body it was easy for us to think that this was distinctive for human beings. Both human and animal research in which social preference is tested illustrate the importance of the discrepancy between conspecific preference and realized social condition. (See here.)
What we are now coming to believe is that what is distinctive is not necessarily qualitatively distinctive. In other words, animals might have simple versions of many of the kinds of processes that human beings have more elaborate processes of. That’s why looking at loneliness in monkeys does make some sense. When John Cacioppo talks about loneliness, he distinguishes the experience of isolation or whether there is another individual around or not. That’s a description of the external circumstances and those external circumstances are undoubtedly perceived by an animal. But what kind of meaning gets added to that perception is the part that’s probably sort of qualitatively different from human beings.