Wednesday, April 18, 2018

All the lonely people

A couple of days ago, David Brooks had a column in which he wrote "In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent."    I've seen research on changes in the number and type of ties among people, but I didn't know of anything on feelings of loneliness, so I tried to investigate further.  Brooks didn't provide a link to his source, but a Google search showed other articles making the same claim.  The source of the 40% figure seems to be a survey of people aged 45 and over sponsored by the AARP in 2010.  However, the report of that survey didn't say anything about changes in loneliness.

There is a question that has been asked in a number of surveys asking people if they had felt "very lonely or remote from other people" in the past few weeks.  The percent saying they had:

Nov 1963    28%
June 1965   26%
Jan 1981     17%
May 1990   19%
Sept 2001   26%
Dec 2001    24%

That doesn't look like any kind of trend.  The numbers in the 1981 and 1990 are lower, but they were in surveys taken by Gallup, and the others were by NORC, so that may be a factor.  Unfortunately, the question hasn't been asked since 2001.

I searched Google scholar for papers about trends in loneliness, and found one from 2014 entitled "Declining Loneliness Over Time:  Evidence From American Colleges and High Schools" .  It was based on surveys at various colleges and universities and on the Monitoring the Future Survey, a representative survey of high school students that has been conducted since the 1970.  It mentioned that other literature claimed that loneliness had increased, but I checked the sources they cited and they didn't provide any evidence--they just said it had, or cited research that wasn't really relevant.

It's possible that I missed something, but I doubt that there is any actual evidence that feelings of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.  My guess is that the claim is based on a widely cited paper published in 2006, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades," which found that the percentage of people saying that in the last six months they had not "discussed matters important to you" with anyone went from 10% in 1985 to 25% in 2004.  They called this "social isolation," which sounds more or less equivalent to "loneliness," so you can see how one would turn into the other.  The change in discussion networks for "important matters" is interesting, if it happened (as the authors acknowledge, it might be at least partly an artifact of survey procedures), but it's not necessarily the same as a change in feelings of loneliness.

Two observations:
1.  It's remarkable that online editions of newspapers and magazines haven't developed reasonable conventions about when to include links to a source.  I checked five or six articles, all in well-regarded publications, which included the claim that levels of loneliness had doubled.  Only one provided a link:  that was to the AARP survey report, which didn't support the claim.
2.  There are cases when you can't say much about trends because there are recent survey questions, but no older ones.  This isn't one of them:  in addition to the "very lonely or remote," there was a 1964 survey asking people to agree or disagree with the statement "I often feel quite lonely" (27% did), and a 1990 Gallup Poll asking "How often do you ever feel lonely?" (10% frequently, 26% sometimes, 40% seldom, and 23% never) and a number of related questions.  There is also a Gallup question from 1950:  "When you have personal problems, do you like to discuss them with anyone to help clear them up, or not?" and a follow-up about who you discuss them with.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


  1. This reminded me that, as an amateur (Friday night league) bowler, I'm always irritated by things like the book "Bowling Alone" that use bowling as a metaphor between people who don't bowl. (Hint: we only bowl alone when we're practicing, league and weekend bowling tournaments are social events.)

    But complaining that David Brooks has his numbers wrong on social science issues isn't likely to lead to anything other than high blood pressure: he's pretty much always wrong on the details all the time, and doesn't care. And no matter how hard you try, there's no way to get the NYT to print/announce (or even admit privately) corrections. (Until the NYT fires brooks and dowd, I'm never giving them a red cent. But I have that luxury; if you want to be part of US academic/intellectual circles, you need to read it. Sign.)

  2. I enjoy his columns--he has lots of ideas. It would be nice if he made an effort to distinguish between those which are supported by evidence and those which aren't, but just having ideas is worth something.

    That's a good point about "Bowling Alone" as a title--it's memorable, but doesn't make any sense when you think about it.

  3. I find Mel Brooks far more enlightening, factually and conceptually, than David.

  4. David:

    You write that you enjoy Brooks's columns as "he has lots of ideas." I think it would be more accurate to say that he recycles the ideas of others, and many of the ideas he recycles are confused and, at times, malicious. I think the newspaper would do well to replace Brooks's column by an astrology column, as that would not pretend to be accurate. Astrology columns are full of ideas too.