Monday, September 15, 2014

"All the Lonely People..."

Loneliness distorts perception. The need for human connection is so strong that if you cannot connect other human beings you will develop a relationship with a pet rock. Or better, you will be more likely to mistake a doll for a human being.

It’s not just a question of lowering our standards when we are alone. More importantly, when we are feeling isolated, disconnected and bereft our condition will distort our perception… to the point of believing that a doll is a human being.

So says recent research by Harvard postdoctoral fellow Katherine Powers.

Business Week summarizes the study:

It’s an intuitive enough finding; the desirability of friendship and the idea that we’d therefore lower our standards if necessary to try to attain it makes sense. What is striking, though, is that loneliness can affect our perception at such a basic level, and that it could have counterproductive effects: A heightened awareness for social information is helpful in trying to find and make friends, an inability to tell fake people from real ones is not. But maybe the behavior is adaptive in another way. Recent research has shown that loneliness can have dramatic health impacts, and even shorten our lives. In situations where there aren’t any good friend options—a desert island, say—it might make sense to fool ourselves into believing that inanimate objects are animate, to stave off not only the psychological but the physical effects of solitude.

The pain of solitude is such that we are all prone to accept anyone or anything as a stand-in.

If that is true, why not computer avatars?

Business Week says:

In that sense, the animacy study’s findings are hopeful, in a creepy way—the lonelier a person is, the easier it is to assuage that loneliness, perhaps with a simple computer avatar or a not particularly sophisticated robot.

Of course, we suspect that it is better to make a friend with another human being and to make a friend with someone of good character, thus to establish a durable connection than to befriend a pet rock or a robot.

Perhaps a robot is better than nothing, but still. And we ought also to ask whether computer games and social media that produce complex relationships with avatars facilitate or detract from true friendship.

About the question of skewed perception, we see it when someone falls in love with the wrong person.

Someone who feels alone and isolated is more likely, the research suggests, to be blinded by love. He or she is less likely to see the faults in a prospective lover and will idealize that person beyond reason.

Feelings of loneliness make it more likely that someone will fall in love with the wrong person. And loneliness will make it more likely that people who fall desperately in love be more threatened by the loss of love. Thus, they will be more likely to do whatever is necessary, even to the point of accepting abuse, in order to maintain the relationship.

This means: if you are feeling lonely you are vulnerable to being deceived. If you are feeling lonely your perceptions are very likely to be askew. If that is your situation ask a friend or a parent to offer a fair evaluation before you fall head-over-heels....

For a social being, human connection is a vital need. In the absence of prospective friends, humans are capable of developing friendly relationships with dolls, avatars, pets and robots. The lonelier they are the more they are likely to humanize the inanimate and the inhuman.


Lindsay Harold said...

One has to wonder if the modern tendency to obsess over pets is a result of our lack of human connection and community. We tend to live individual, isolated lives, even when surrounded by other people. Perhaps that is why many turn to doting on dogs, cats, and other pets for companionship rather than reaching out for true human friendship and community.

Ares Olympus said...

I agree overall, especially about vulnerability to an unreflective willingness to compromise yourself for abusive or exploitive relationships.

In terms of inanimate objects, I recall in the movie Cast Away, Tom Hank's character, trapped alone on an island, talked to a volleyball he named Wilson from its brand name.

I wonder about books, TV and movies, does reading or watching people you can't interact with counter the effects of loneliness? I'd expect so, but maybe more as a distraction, while deeper needs remain unmet?

I mean most of all we may have a need to give, and its as real as a need to receive, so fictional characters can't really recieve anything from you.

I'm still not sure who is worse off in loneliness, introverts or extroverts. Extroverts would seem more vulnerable to exploitation, while introverts maybe content themselves with small lives close to home, but when eventually something happens they can't handle, they don't know how to reach out. Or maybe that's not introverts/extroverts but something else, but shows a sense of passivity that is real and hidden.

David Foster said...

Milan Kundera: "We all need someone to look at us. we can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. the first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. the second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. they are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. they are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. this happens to nearly all of them sooner or later. people in the second category, on the other hand, can always come up with the eyes they need. then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. one day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark. and finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. they are the dreamers."

A very interesting framework, though probably by no means complete.