Loneliness’s Educated Cousin

Try to answer these questions honestly. Of all your friends, family members, neighbors, and acquaintances of various types and degrees, how many can you count on to:

  1. Help you find a job?
  2. Lend you money?
  3. Care for you if you’re sick or injured?
  4. Talk to you if have a problem, feel sad, or are depressed?

Have your answers? Okay.

This is one method researchers use to quantify social isolation, the college-educated cousin of loneliness. Loneliness is subjective: if you’re surrounded by others but feel lonely, you are, and if you’re by yourself but don’t feel lonely, you’re not. The four questions above, less charged than asking “are you lonely?”, are designed to elicit a more objective response about your support network. You’re considered socially isolated if your answers to the questions are zero or one.

The COVID States Project, which consists of researchers from Northeastern, Northwestern, Harvard, and Rutgers Universities, just released a report on social isolation revealing that in June 2021, about one-third of American adults had either no one or just one person to confide in if they had a problem, felt sad, or were depressed. And that number is up since the start of the pandemic, when you would think people felt particularly isolated.

According to Harvard Medical School, “The more isolated people are, the less happy they are, and brain function declines as well as physical health.” In 2015 the United Kingdom’s venerable Royal Society published a paper concluding that among other things, social isolation leads to “depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline,” and earlier death.

Left alone long enough, even we hard-core introverts may allow our minds to run away with us if no one’s around to tell us we’re being foolish, melodramatic, overly fixated, irrational, paranoid, or spending too much time on internet conspiracy sites. And the farther from reality we stray, the less anyone wants to engage us, so our alienation intensifies. Given the psychological harm associated with social isolation, is it such a stretch to suggest the socially isolated are especially prone to psychosis — a mental state marked by loss of contact with reality — and their assertion that the cure (vaccination) for COVID-19 is worse than the disease is a manifestation of said psychosis?

I’m not suggesting all vaccine resistors are psychotic. But we know that much, perhaps most, of the vaccine resistance stems from right-wing political identification, and from my admittedly non-professional perspective, prioritizing politics over personal health seems intensely psychotic. To connect the dots: when FiveThirtyEight.com studied public cooperation with pollsters last year, “we found that these socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks,” and in his latest Atlantic Monthly essay, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum notes that “By early July, the vaccination gap had widened to almost 12 points: 46.7 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties, 35 percent in Trump counties. When pollsters ask about vaccine intentions, they record a 30-point gap: 88 percent of Democrats, but only 54 percent of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible.”

So what I’m hearing is that social isolation, which leads to unhappiness, depression, poor sleep, impaired executive function, and accelerated cognitive decline — if not psychosis per se—disproportionately affects Trump supporters, who disproportionately resist getting vaccinated, making it the chief cause of our struggle to achieve herd immunity through science.

That causality chain would definitely benefit from more research. I’d love it if someone pinned down how much the categories of socially isolated voters and vaccine resistors truly overlap. It might also help to know how many left-wing authoritarians — the roughly eight percent of the population crusading for wokeness — fall within the ranks of the socially isolated (I’m guessing a lot) and oppose vaccination, because it’s essentially the same phenomenon.

But how not surprised I would be if causality were conclusively proven.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.