A&S Magazine August-September 2022

Loneliness Is Epidemic. This UVA Professor Is Searching for a Cure

Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in America, and psychology professor Adrienne Wood’s search for a cure has won her one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards.

By: Russ Bahorsky

Loneliness Is Epidemic. This UVA Professor Is Searching for a Cure

Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications

Are you lonely? If so, you’re not alone in feeling that way.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, three in five Americans reported feeling lonely, and since then as many as a million more of us have reached a state of chronic loneliness, a condition that if left unresolved can contribute to serious long-term problems like depression, sleep disorders, heart disease and substance abuse.

So, if you find yourself longing for the kind of social connection that you can’t get from Instagram or Twitter, what do you do about it? Should you get closer to the friends you already have, or is it time to make some new ones?​

Adrienne Wood, assistant professor of psychology, has earned a grant to better understand how different social connections affect loneliness. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Of course, the solution isn’t as simple as choosing one or the other, but the search for a practical answer has won Adrienne Wood, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Emotion and Behavior Lab at the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award. It’s one of the most coveted honors for early-career faculty whose work in both the lab and the classroom shows exceptional promise. 

While research shows that the strength of our social connections is a predictor of our well-being in general, what is less clear is whether it’s better to have more friends or to have deeper relationships with the ones we already know.

In the Emotion and Behavior Lab, Wood explores the dynamics of social networks on several levels, beginning with the way we engage with each other through conversation, laughter and other interactions, or what Wood describes as “the way people become aligned in their thoughts and behavior and emotions – the momentary processes that make conversation interesting and create the bedrock for social connection.”

Wood is also interested in understanding the connections between individuals in the context of their communities – where they fit into the community hierarchy, what information they have access to and the diversity of their connections. She’s also interested in the even broader connections between communities – how those communities intermingle, what happens when people move from one community to another, and how diversity impacts communities.

To understand the connections people make at each level, Wood uses machine learning tools and other computer-based methods to analyze the social costs and benefits of each decision people make in their interactions with others.

“Everything you do is a decision, and we can describe each behavioral decision in terms of whether it is exploring new possibilities or exploiting existing possibilities,” Wood said.

The exploit-explore concept isn’t a new one; it’s already been applied to understanding issues like changes in our attitudes and approaches to learning throughout our lifecycle. But it has not been applied to understanding how we make decisions as members of our social networks – whether it’s more advantageous to exploit existing relationships, which involves taking few risks, or explore new ones, which is more risky but can yield greater rewards. Wood and her team are excited to see if the concept can shed new light on the approach we take to our social connections.

Wood earned an award from the National Science Foundation to further pursue research on loneliness and what can ease it (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications).

"We think there are trade-offs,” Wood said. “If you go too far toward being socially exploratory, you’re kind of like a social butterfly who has a new friend every month, but they’ll stay at the acquaintance level. That could be really good for you in a lot of ways. It’s very psychologically rich. It will be interesting, and you’ll have lots of novelty in your life, but you’ll have a lot of weak ties.

The strategy may be the right one for someone young who is building a network that could lead to career opportunities and community connections, but there’s going to be a downside.

“If you’re too exploratory, you won’t have a very stable social life, and you won’t be as happy. Having a tight-knit, stable set of friends leads to better well-being,” Wood said. “Ultimately, there’s a trade-off, and the best behavioral solution is to be somewhere in the middle and balance a little bit of exploration with a little bit of exploitation. The question is, where is that optimal point for a given person at a given point in their life, and how do we help them get there?”

We know that loneliness is as dangerous and as deadly as smoking cigarettes and not exercising.

With the award, Wood will receive funding of just over $500,000 over five years to develop a wide variety of experiments, from simulating the behavior of participants in social networks under the most controlled situations with computer models to creating online environments in which real people will interact. Wood also plans to develop a mobile-sensing study involving undergraduates who will install an app on their phones that will let Wood and her team track where they go over the course of the semester.

“We can look at how they physically explore Grounds and the surrounding areas and what that might tell us about their feelings of social belonging on campus and their well-being,” Wood said. “Do they become more socially competent over the course of the semester if they engage in a lot of exploration of their environment, for example? The study will really be focusing on the long-term consequences of being a social explorer.”

The goal, Wood said, is to reduce loneliness, which she sees as an epidemic.

“We know that loneliness is as dangerous and as deadly as smoking cigarettes and not exercising,” Wood said. “We want to help people not just have friends but to find the right balance of the types of friends so they can maximize the benefits they can get from the social resources that are available to them.”

Part of the UVA research examines whether it is better be deeply connected to a few friends, or to have more friends with thinner emotional bonds. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications).

News of the award drew praise from senior members of the faculty of the College’s Department of Psychology.

“Adrienne Wood uses state-of-the-art methods to investigate the strategies people use to make social connections and reduce their loneliness, observing social interactions in naturalistic settings and conducting controlled experiments,” professor of psychology and noted author Timothy Wilson said. “She is a brilliant researcher, and her work promises to shed new light on how to help people connect with others.”

Shigehiro Oishi, a personality and social psychologist whose research focuses on the causes and consequences of well-being, said: “The NSF CAREER award is perhaps the most prestigious award young social psychologists can get, and Adrienne is clearly a top social psychologist of her generation. Her research is extremely exciting.”  

In addition to funding her research, the CAREER award also recognizes faculty who are doing exceptional work as educators, and Wood will be using some of the funding it provides to develop an open-access, online resource that will serve as an alternative to the kind of expensive textbooks students are typically expected to buy for their first-year social psychology courses.

“I’m going to curate a collection of readings, so rather than reading a textbook chapter, students can read blog posts, articles from The New York Times and content that’s targeted toward their level of expertise, but with a different spin on how we usually present the material, and ideally, it’s going to be free,” Wood said.

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