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Study explores the role of loneliness in catching a flu

ByImogen Bevan

May 14, 2017

Does being lonely make you more likely to catch a cold or come down with the flu?

A group of US health psychologists from Rice University thought it would be worth finding out.

Their method? Infecting a group of research participants with a virus, and placing them in solitary confinement for five days (yes – this study had ethical approval). To their surprise, researchers found that the size of someone’s social network (e.g. the number of social relations they regularly talk to) had no effect on people’s experiences of having a cold, but that their self-reported degree of ‘loneliness’ did.

But, are there implications of such a study?

Such studies clearly raise important questions – both of an ethical and theoretical nature. Some readers might have raised an eyebrow at the development of a so-called ‘viral challenge paradigm’, in which we, in the name of science, voluntarily infect people with an unpleasant virus, or attempt to recreate experiences of extreme social isolation in laboratory-like settings. The study participants received a post-study $1,060  payment.

Even more questions arise: Is ‘loneliness’ just a simple variable, to be run through statistical software in the same way as age or blood type? How does one even measure loneliness?

In this study, loneliness is understood to be a ‘risk factor’ for illness, and defined in a single statement as the discrepancy between the quality of an individual’s social relationships and their desire for particular social relationships.

Social science also has a rich history of loneliness studies. However, people’s loneliness is not just out there, waiting to be measured by a social science scale, such as the Short Loneliness Scale. For sociologist Adrian Franklin, loneliness is above all else a moral judgement based on culturally specific norms and ideals of social engagement. In other words, loneliness does not exist in a neutral vacuum, but in socio-cultural context.

But if a correlation can successfully be established between social unhappiness and illness experience, think of the significance of such a finding for broader society. Imagine a future where doctors prescribe not only painkillers but medicalised socialisation. Would the pharmaceutical industry jump at the opportunity to produce the ultimate socialisation drug? Or would public health authorities start ‘nudging’ us into attending speed-dating events, family reunions, or maybe  taking the odd trip to church for some friendly faces – all in the name of health? Imagine the possibilities.


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