Genetic factors may play an important role in loneliness

(Photo credit: Maykel Stone)

The relationship between loneliness and certain personality traits may be due in part to shared genetic factors, according to a new study in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Though environmental factors unique to each participant in the study appeared to play a bigger role overall, a substantial proportion of the variation in loneliness was related to genetic influences.

“I am interested in the construct of loneliness because I feel that we, as a society, are becoming lonelier. In the United Kingdom, the government appointed a new Minister of Loneliness in 2018. That is the only country that I know of with such a government position,” said study author Julie Aitken Schermer of The University of Western Ontario.

“Although most of the media coverage of the new Minister of Loneliness focused on the elderly, I believe that many young adults are becoming lonelier possibly because of the digital tools available. Interacting with someone through means such as social media is not as rich and fulfilling as an in-person interaction.”

“When I look at my class of university students before the lecture, they tend to be looking at their cellular telephones and not chatting with each other. I worry that they are missing an opportunity to interact. Therefore even though they are not alone, these students could be quite lonely,” Schermer said.

In the study of 764 pairs of same-sex adult twins from Australia, the participants completed a measure of the “Big Five” personality traits as well as a measure of loneliness. The study included both identical twins and non-identical twins, allowing the researchers to estimate genetic versus environmental influences.

“The main points to take from the results are that approximately 35% of the variance in self-reported loneliness is heritable. People who tend to be more neurotic (worry) are also more lonely (a commonly found pattern),” Schermer explained to PsyPost.

“Surprisingly a small positive relationship was found between loneliness and openness to experience. Agreeable, conscientious, and extraverted people tend to be less lonely. Interestingly, these patterns of correlations were also significant at the genetic level suggesting some common genetic factors are involved in the expression of both personality and loneliness.”

All research includes some limitations, and the current study is no exception. “As with other cross-sectional studies, causal statements cannot be made about the relationship between personality and loneliness,” Schermer said.

“The main limitation to the results is that only general feelings of loneliness were assessed. Loneliness can be more specific in nature, such as feeling a lack of friends versus loneliness due to estrangement from family members. Further research is needed to assess if different genetic correlations are found with personality and types of loneliness.”

“I would like to raise awareness about the prevalence of loneliness and the consequences of feeling lonely. Loneliness affects people of all ages and as individuals become more disconnected from others in terms of interpersonal contact, I fear that loneliness will simply increase in prevalence,” Schermer added.

The study, “A behavior genetic analysis of personality and loneliness“, was authored by Julie Aitken Schermer and Nicholas G. Martin.

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