Why Do People Feel Alone in Cities?

Humans need each other in order to survive. Not necessarily in a physical sense, but in a deeply psychological sense. Time spent apart from each other is destructive in an ultimate way; we tend to lose our minds. We are generally happier when in close contact with others, and especially so when we have a supportive structure of close relationships.[i] By contrast, we tend to feel higher levels of negative emotions and feelings of loneliness, isolation and even depression, when we are left alone.[ii] We have an evolutionary “need to belong” and a “strong aversion to social exclusion” because social connection allows us to depend upon others for food and security.[iii] It is no surprise, therefore, that being left alone harms us emotionally, and in being so harmed – we may act out.

In all of the various random shootings that occur in America and elsewhere, one of the single, startlingly consistent features is that the perpetrators are almost always lonely and isolated.[iv] Often they have few, if any, real friends and often they are estranged from family or loved ones. It is no surprise to discover that “criminologists have known for decades that building and maintaining relationships with socially accepted people is the best way to prevent violence.”[v] The evidence suggests that social exclusion can lead to feelings of loneliness and alienation, which can cause depression and mental illness, which can predicate criminal activity.[vi] In truth, when an individual has violent tendencies and is left alone, they gain an opportunity to fantasize and develop strategies of how to bring their crime to fruition. One particular school shooter (name withheld) “fuelled his violent fantasies while hidden away in a windowless bunker plastered with posters of guns and tanks.”[1][vii] Another described that he had “nothing to live for”, before surrendering to police.[viii] Still another launched a “manifesto” of “nihilism, hate, and disillusion with society” online.[ix] He was later described as a “shy, lonely young man”.[x] Still another was described by peers as “quiet and as someone who would not respond when others greeted him.[xi]

Research on 15 shootings from 1995-2001 revealed “acute or chronic rejection -in the form of ostracism, bullying, and/or romantic rejection- was present in all but two… incidents”.[xii] This alienation and rejection is often grounded in cultural differences, demographic differences or differences in personal interest between the shooter and those they kill. “I don’t have a single American friend,” said the Boston bomber in a photo essay, years before the attack, “I don’t understand them”.[xiii] It is important to note here that ostracism and bullying is often predicated on the idea that people are different to us, and that we must therefore treat them differentlyand often cruelly- to emphasise this difference. When people are left out and treated as different to the majority they can sometimes resort to desperate acts of crime and violence to gain attention, recognition or revenge.

In Australia where guns are largely illegal to own and use, violence still occurs, it just is left unrecognized. Self-harm and suicide are themselves a form of violent desperation that people resort to in very similar circumstances of alienation, loneliness and mental illness. Just because suicide cases are not splashed across the media does not mean that they are any less important than massacres or shootings. In fact, they are arguably more so. Silent deaths account for six deaths a day in this country, and somewhere between 2132 and 2500 a year.[xiv] “Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for men under 44 and women under 34”.[xv] And yet we barely ever hear about it on the news, even in a peripheral sense.

Instead of solving this crisis of isolation, social exclusion and personal violence, we are perpetuating its cause. Ever since the 1970s campaigns have consistently been raised about “Stranger Danger”.[xvi] Police emphasize “safety messages” regarding the dangers that strangers pose to our children, with abduction and sexual abuse being of primary concern.[xvii] This is despite the fact that “85 per cent” of child abuse cases occur with “someone known to or trusted by the child”.[xviii] Crucially, the extreme messages of “never talk to strangers” (regardless of context) encourage an atmosphere of distrust within the community more generally. Nancy McBride of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests that we should instead teach our children to “recognize and avoid certain situations, rather than certain people”.[xix] It is not strangers generally that are dangerous, it is strangers who perform particular actions to vulnerable children.

A campaign that makes us greet people in the street, treat strangers with a degree of kindness, civility and respect and talk to people who are quiet by nature (albeit not go home with anyone, or anywhere else, and not accepting anything from them), would do more to prevent crime than our current tactic. Particularly (as discussed above) because alienation itself is a leading cause of crime. John Kerlatec, Sex Crimes Squad Commander Superintendant of NSW suggests, “There is no specific profile of what a ‘stranger’ may look like… so children and their parents need to focus on what a person may say or do rather than [their] appearance.”[xx] It is the dangerous actions of strangers, rather than the dangers of common civility, which children need protection from.

By perpetuating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, we are contributing to the creation of criminal activity:

How much of the anxiety now endemic in big-cities stems from a fear of “real” crime and how much from a sense that the street is disorderly, a source of worrisome encounters… [When] residents think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise… they will modify their behaviour. [Residents] will use the streets less often… will stay apart from [strangers], move with averted eyes, silent lips and hurried steps.

Such an area is susceptible to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate behaviour by informal controls [such as talking to each other, and handling the situation personally, that] drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark… That muggings will occur. – Wilson & Kelling, “Broken Windows”.[xxi]

The media is a major contributor to this sense of fear and distrust. Crime and violence (particularly random acts of crime between strangers) are consistently overstated in the media. The media, through this overstatement, cause an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust of strangers more generally within society.[xxii] TV stations hire crime reporters who report regardless of the statistical frequency or significance of a crime; a practice that is condemned by Government and Independent Reports alike.[xxiii] It is these sorts of practices that make the Australian Federal Police Association accuse the media of displaying “the worst excesses of humanity” to the public on a daily basis.[xxiv] The AFP suggest that this substantiates the public’s fear of strangers in the community, even when that fear is disproportionate to crime rates.[xxv] Overseas, the majority of British people think crime is continually rising, even though it has been steadily falling since 1995.[xxvi] In America, coverage of crime in one state increased by 600%, where crimes committed actually fell by 20% in the same space of time.[xxvii] We overstate the problem, perpetuate the fear, and then create a larger problem of social isolation, caused by the fear itself – leading to strangers becoming dangerous. We then warn our children of “Stranger Danger” – making the situation worse.

By focusing attention on statistically insignificant events, we actually increase their significance and their affect on society. The “threats” that we fear are often overstated, exaggerated and fringed with the undertones of discrimination and racism. There is evidence to suggest that the more “segregation” and “homogenization” occurs in society, the more small differences between us, even in physical appearance can become “threatening”.[xxviii] Such threatening appearances are overburdened in the news media, in which the race of the perpetrator, often for the innocent reason of “identification”, is conveyed with the story. How many times have we heard the alleged robber described as “a man of middle eastern appearance”, “Mediterranean appearance”, “Sudanese men”, “African” in appearance, “Indian appearance”, “Caucasian in appearance”.[xxix]

The truth is that a general fear of strangers is equivalent to a fear of ‘people different to me’, people ‘different to my family’, and thus it has the underpinnings of potential discrimination. This is especially true when attitudes taught to our youth such as “stranger danger” are maintained through adult life. Considering that most strangers in modern cities do not talk to each other on public transport, we can assume that this is indeed the case.

Our intolerance of strangers and our approach to silence may be contributing to this sense of alienation within society. The isolated -disturbed by their own lack of social connection- may act out in violence. In consequence our “silence” itself may be a catalyst for criminal activity rather than prevention, as “Stranger Danger” programs have us believe.

On the flip side, communication and a sense of community can help prevent crime, as well as provide a general sense of communal harmony that increases personal happiness. The reasons for treating strangers with hostile indifference are minimal and potentially dangerous; the reasons for treating strangers with civility and respect are abundant.

The Age of Instant Gratification

Alarmingly, despite the above evidence of the dangers of social isolation, people are increasingly embracing and causing lives of loneliness and alienation. “Work-from-home” has become a common catch cry for the ever-busy parent who wishes to reduce their commute. This form of telecommuting whilst beneficial in an economic sense, is deeply costly from a social psychological standpoint. By limiting and reducing our physical proximity to new colleagues, we limit our ability to befriend them and form long-term meaningful relationships. By limiting ourselves to our houses, we limit all accidental forms of communication such as ‘bumping into’ a stranger, or any contact with strangers altogether. This limits and confines our relationships to people we know. Or, if we go online to meet people, to groups and people whom often share our similar interests and outlooks. In fact, one of the most worrying dilemmas of modern life is that, with the internet, someone can live their entire life from their bedroom without meeting anyone at all.

The core question is: are we meant to be passive receptors of existence? Or rather, are we made to play an active role in life’s affairs? It is contestable that our flexi-time work-from-home lifestyle that many of us seek is just turning us all into social pariahs. When we confine ourselves to our homes, and indulge in life from afar, we risk losing much of that everyday social interaction that is so necessary as a basis for personal health.

Often entertainment and the media sustain and prolong our denial in such isolated environments. The media and other forms of entertainment (such as comedy shows and even books) can play on our psychological cravings for excitement, drama, conflict, resolutions and other basic instinctual desires that we would otherwise gain from “real world” experiences. Instead of taking risks in real life, we watch others take ‘life or death risks’ on television, breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not us and turn over and fall asleep with nothing accomplished.

Entertainment traps us into complacency by tapping into our psychological need for “rewards”. These rewards have received much scholarship in recent years, and through testing, have been proven to be highly addictive.[xxx] Yes, as addictive as drugs.[xxxi] Psychologist Mark Griffiths summarises that “all addictions” are “essentially about constant rewards and reinforcements”.[xxxii] We are willing to put a certain amount of effort into something to receive a certain level of reward. If something is too difficult and the reward is too hard to gain, we will give up. On the other hand: if the difficulty of gaining the reward is perfectly balanced with the timing of receiving the reward, we will keep going back. We will become addicted. It is a cycle of work, reward and reinforcement that gets us hooked.

Take computer games, where intangible rewards are given in the form of mere images of trophies, stars or access to new content or a high ‘score’ to brag about. Computer games are often balanced to time these rewards so as not to make the game ‘too difficult’ for you to lose interest, but instead reward you at just the right level and thereby trigger addiction. In effect: hard enough to make the reward worth fighting for, but not too hard that you quit in frustration.

Surprisingly, TV shows and books work in exactly the same manner. The amount of work you put in -the amount of time you spend watching or reading- must be perfectly balanced with the timing of attaining the rewards you get from doing so. These rewards come in the form of denouements or big revelatory moments, compelling cliff hangers, fresh and exciting dramatic moments, comedic moments or educational experiences. We dedicate time to detective thrillers to find out ‘who dun it’ and feel validated when the murderer is particularly unlikely. We enjoy TV drama for the emotional excitement of marital breakdowns and adulterous affairs, with no risk to ourselves in the process. In each case these rewards are perfectly timed so as not to lose our interest but to keep us right there in the heat of the moment. Intuitively we understand this process and recognise that shows without these ‘rewards’ make us bored. These are the shows with no ‘exciting’ moments or shows that take too long ‘to get to the point’. What we mean when we say ‘get to the point’ is ‘get to my reward already’. On the other hand, we intuitively know that the most thrilling and versatile shows are successful because they constantly reward us as we keep watching them. They provide consistent, reliable entertainment every time.

Each of us has unique ‘rewards’ we respond to. Some of us enjoy comedy or laughter, while others enjoy suspense or thrills. Regardless of our personal preferences, we each succumb to our choice of poison. In every case these ‘rewards’ entice us to keep coming back for more. We therefore become addicted at a subconscious level, and this is why we enjoy our favourite TV show almost compulsively. Missing it for even one week triggers psychological withdrawal symptoms. Indeed, this is one of the major signs of a behavioural addiction: a significant indication that we are feeling compelled to ‘get our fix’.[xxxiii]

What’s more, these entertainments -when addictive- can affect us physiologically. Much like drugs and alcohol, addictions to TV and entertainment can impact our “epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin levels”.[xxxiv] Those are respectively our: fight-or-flight adrenalin hormone, our ‘reward’ hormone (the one triggered by addictive drugs) and our ‘happiness’ hormone. In effect, some of our base hormonal gratifications are met by entertainment. It is these hormonal changes that have tangible effects on our emotional well-being. It is these tangible effects on the brain that make entertainment so ‘rewarding’.

But what is at risk in this instant gratification?

Importantly, these activities satiate our base impulses but do nothing for our grander impulses of life fulfilment, personal achievement or social development. In excess, entertainment can destroy a person’s life. And it is the very character of entertainment –addictive, and instantly gratifying- that can lead to personal destruction.

A life solely devoted to entertainment is a life of mere consumerism. Intrinsically we understand that a person who solely consumes can contribute nothing of value to the world – but more importantly – leaves no legacy behind of their life, their dreams, their aspirations or personality. Consumers are forgotten; producers reign supreme.

It is this loss that we now risk. It is the untold millions who are quelled into inaction by addictive forms of entertainment. It is the untold hours lost to social media, the Internet and digital entertainment. It is the untold stories of loneliness, alienation and isolation, quelled by forms of entertainment that substitute in our lives in place of real human contact.

In 2013 there was a Spanish study of “Internet Use Disorder”.[xxxv] The disorder consists of “behavioural non-essential” Internet activities (leisure, pleasure or recreational activities) causing “mass disturbances in the subject’s life”. The paper suggests that Internet addiction, like other addictions, is characterized by withdrawal symptoms, mood changes and obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Problematic users were those spending (on average) 2.25 hours online per day and 15-25 hours online per week. If we regard our own use of Internet technologies: the use of social media, email, news, online games, TV and movies used throughout the day on our laptops, computers and mobile devices. It’s hard to admit, but most of us have a problem here.

Importantly, these forms of media can be used for the grander purposes of self-fulfilment, human achievement, creativity, innovation and social connection. However, by their very nature, online videos concerning the meaning of life are not as instantly rewarding as a comedy show that ‘rewards’ you every 3 sentences with another laugh. As discussed above, the comedy show is triggering addictive behavioural patterns with reinforcements and rewards; the one-hour lecture is not.

Many of us have curbed our minds away from these longer, more developed, more complicated, knowledgeable and time-consuming forms of media. In doing so, we have moved away from unique forms of self-development, innovation and achievement in our spare time, to replace them with passive forms of consumerism. We have substituted lives of real emotional, physical and social connection, with lives of passive, insubstantial and artificial emotion. We live by proxy, yet our damaged emotions remain our own.

 

This is an extract from my book: Us vs Them: A Case For Social Empathy”.

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[i] Berscheid, E. & Reis, H. T. (1998) ‘Attraction and Close Relationships’, in D. T. Gillbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (4th ed, Vol 2, 193-281) (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill);

Kawachi, I, & Berkman, L.F. (2001), ‘Social Ties and Mental Health’, Journal of Urban Health, 78, 458-467.

[ii] Diener E, (1984), ‘Subjective Well-Being’, Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542-575; Cacioppo, J.T., Hughes, M.E., Waite, L. J., Hawkley, L.C., & Thisted, R. A. (2006), ‘Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptomes: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Analyses’, Psychology and Aging, 21, 140-151.

[iii] Leary, M.R., Tambor, E.S., Terdal, S.K., & Downs, D.L. (1995), ‘Self-Esteem as an Interpersonal Monitor: The Sociometer Hypothesis’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 518-530.

[iv] Mark R. Leary, Robin M Kowalski, Laura Smith, and Stephen Phillips, ‘Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies of the School Shootings’, Aggressive Behaviour 29, 202-214 (2013);

Frank J Roberts, ‘Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings?”, Scientific American MIND, August 2007 Issue; M. Alex Johnson, “A Plea For Help: Georgia School Shootering Suspect’s Lonely Life”, NBC News, (22, Aug, 2013);

Atte Oksanen, Johanna Nurmi, Miika Vuori, Pekka Rasanen, “Jokely: The Social Roots of a School Shooting Tragedy in Finland”, Peter Sitzer & Wilhelm Heitmeyer (eds), School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts of Prevention, 189-215 (New York: Springer).

[v] Emphasis added. Frank J Roberts, ‘Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings?”, Scientific American MIND, August 2007 Issue.

[vi] Thomas J. Scheff, “Shame and Community: Social Components in Depression”, (2000); Mark R. Leary, Robin M Kowalski, Laura Smith, and Stephen Phillips, ‘Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies of the School Shootings’, Aggressive Behaviour 29, 202-214 (2013).

[vii] “Inside the dark, lonely world of maniac…” Pete Samson, US Editor, Newtown, Connecticut (17th December 2012), <http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4702951/dark-world-of-school-massacre-adam-lanza.html&gt;

[viii] M. Alex Johnson, “A Plea For Help: Georgia School Shootering Suspect’s Lonely Life”, NBC News, (22, Aug, 2013)

[ix] Emphasis added. Atte Oksanen, Johanna Nurmi, Miika Vuori, Pekka Rasanen, “Jokely: The Social Roots of a School Shooting Tragedy in Finland”, Peter Sitzer & Wilhelm Heitmeyer (eds), School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts of Prevention, 189-215 (New York: Springer).

[x] Emphasis added. Atte Oksanen, Johanna Nurmi, Miika Vuori, Pekka Rasanen, “Jokely: The Social Roots of a School Shooting Tragedy in Finland”, Peter Sitzer & Wilhelm Heitmeyer (eds), School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts of Prevention, 189-215 (New York: Springer).

[xi] Emphasis added. Frank J Roberts, ‘Deadly Dreams: What Motivates School Shootings?”, Scientific American MIND, August 2007 Issue.

[xii] Mark R. Leary, Robin M Kowalski, Laura Smith, and Stephen Phillips, ‘Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies of the School Shootings’, Aggressive Behaviour 29, 202-214 (2013).

[xiii] Matilda Battersby, ‘“I don’t have a single American friend”: Photo Essay Titled “Will Box For Passport” reveals profile of Boston bombing suspect…”, The Independent, (19 April 2013)

[xiv] Based on ABS 2009 statistics: ‘Statistics on Suicide in Australia’, Lifeline: Crisis Support. Suicide Prevention. (Call 13 11 14), http://www.lifeline.org

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] “Charley – Strangers”, Public Information Films, The National Archives (UK) (1973).

[xvii] For instance: Charmaine Kane, “Summit focuses on stranger danger”, ABC News (9 Nov 2011); Laura Hegarty, “Stranger Danger message important in the bush”, ABC Tropical North, (1 August 2013);

Caroline Marcus, “Police Urge Parents on teaching kids ‘stranger danger’ after men try to lure girl into car”, The Daily Telegraph, (14 May 2013);

Steve Rice, “Teach Children To Stay Safe and Be Aware of Potential Stranger Danger”, The Adertiser, (17 June 2013).

[xviii] ‘Protecting Children From Stranger Danger’, KidsLife <www.kidslife.com.au>

[xix] ‘Experts Urge Parents to Rethink “Stranger Danger”’, Jet 108.8 (Aug 22, 2005), 14-15.

[xx] Caroline Marcus, “Police Urge Parents on teaching kids ‘stranger danger’ after men try to lure girl into car”, The Daily Telegraph, (14 May 2013)

[xxi] James Q. Wilson, George L. Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety”, The Atlantic, (March 1, 1982).

[xxii] ‘The role of the media’, House Committee Crime in the Community Report, Chapter 2, Federal Parliament Website, <http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=/laca/crimeinthecommunity/report/chapter2.pdf.&gt;;

“Volume 1: John Tulloch, Deborah Lupton, Warwick Blood, Mariah Tulloch, Christine Jennett, Mike Enders, “Fear of Crime: Audit of the Literature and Community Programs”, Criminology Research Council (Australia) (1998)

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] ‘The role of the media’, House Committee Crime in the Community Report, Chapter 2, Federal Parliament Website, <http://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=/laca/crimeinthecommunity/report/chapter2.pdf.&gt;

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Anna Minton, “Why are fear and distrust spiraling in twenty-first century Britain?”, Viewpoint (2008), Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[xxvii] Bowling for Columbine

[xxviii] Anna Minton, “Why are fear and distrust spiraling in twenty-first century Britain?”, Viewpoint (2008), Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[xxix] Tim Priest, ‘The Rise of Middle Eastern Crime in Australia’, Quadrant (January 2004);

Andrew Bolt, ‘It’s our fault they fight?’, The Daily Telegraph (April 27 2011); ‘Sexual Assault – Prahran’, Victims of Crime: Compensation & Counselling Services, Victoria (September 10, 2013); Australian Crime News.

 The Age of Instant Gratification

[xxx] See for example: Mark Griffiths (2010), “Online Video Gaming: What Should Educational Psychologists Know?”. Educational Psychology in Practice: Theory, Research and Practice in Educational Psychology, 26:1, 35-40.

Darren Chappell, Virginia Eatough, Mark N. O. Davies, Mark Griffiths, “EverQuest – It’s Just a Computer Game Right? An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Online Gaming Addiction”, International Journal Mental Health Addiction (2006), 4: 205-216.

Peter G. Sromberg, “Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You” (Palo-Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Griffiths (2010), “Online Video Gaming”. Educational Psychology in Practice, 26:1, 35-40.

Mark Griffiths (2005a), “A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework, Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191, 197.

Mark Griffiths (2005b), “Video Games and Health”, British Medical Journal, 331, 122, 123.

Mark Griffiths (2005c), “The Therapeutic Value of Video Games”, in J Goldstein and J Racssens (Eds.), “Handbook of Computer Game Studies” (Boston, MA:MIT Press) (161-171).

[xxxiii] Fontanella B (2006), “Compulsive Television Watching in an Adolescent: A Case Study”, Revista de Psiquatria do Rio Grande do Sul, 28(2), 1-9

[xxxiv] Hagedorn, W Bryce, PhD; Young, Tabitha. “Identifying and Intervening with Students Exhibiting Signs of Gaming Addiction and other Addictive Behaviors: Implications for Professional School Counselors”, Professional School Counseling,14. 4 (Apr 2011): 250-260, 251.

Citing: (i) Bostwick, J., & Bucci, J. (2008), “Internet Sex Addiction Treated With Naltrexone”, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 83, 226-230;

(ii) Guay, D. (2009), “Drug Treatment of Paraphillic and Nonparaphillic Sexual Disorders”, Clinical Therapeutics, 31(1), 1-31.

(iii) Westphal, J, Jackson, A, Thomas S & Blazczynski, A (2008), “A Review of Pharmacological Approaches to Intervention in Pathological Gambling”, Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 8, 192-207.

[xxxv] Olatz Lopez-Fernandez, Montserrat Freixa-Blanxart, and Maria Luisa Honrubia-Serrano, “The Problematic Internet Entertainment Use Scale for Adolescents: Prevalence of Problem Internet Use in Spanish High School Students”, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking February 2013, 16(2): 108-118. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0250.

 

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  1. informative and insightful post, which is inspiring me to write aavout how daily human interaction –loads of it– is actually built into life in india

    Like

    Reply

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