On the tragic evening of 23rd May 2014, Southern California’s Isla Vista witnessed a vicious killing spree, leaving 6 innocent victims dead and many injured. The California police have identified the perpetrator to be 22 year old Elliot Rodger, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Rodger allegedly shot himself after committing the crimes.
Just minutes before embarking on his rampage, Rodger emailed his parents a 137 page account of his own perceptions of his life, and the triggers that led up to the incident. Even a brief run through of the document will make evident that Rodger’s life was plagued with loneliness and isolation. While one cannot loosely claim that loneliness solely caused the killings (loneliness more likely interacted with other causal emotional states), what’s clear is that it was key amongst the various negative emotional states Rodger experienced.
Loneliness is also a recurring theme in Rodger’s “retribution videos”, which he published in the weeks that preceded the killings. In the videos, he talks about experiencing a life of loneliness and rejection ever since he hit puberty. This perceived isolation is mainly spoken about in the context of romantic relationships and his inability to find a girlfriend, unlike many of his peers. He blamed young girls for not paying attention to him and expressed anger towards young boys, whom he felt were undeserving of their beautiful girlfriends.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the videos, all of which mention a state of isolation:
“Hey, Elliot Rodger here. It’s truly a beautiful day, but as I’ve always said, a beautiful environment is the darkest hell, if you have to experience it alone. And sadly, I have been alone for a very long time.”
“For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me.”
“I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair.”
The destructive power of loneliness has been studied in depth by neuroscientist John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago. Cacioppo argues that human beings are a social species that thrive on social connectedness, and the deprivation of such connectedness can have a number of adverse consequences in our lives. This deprivation needn’t be objective; it can also be perceived, as in the case of a college student like Rodger feeling isolated and lonely even when physically surrounded by his family and fellow UCSB students.
Research has found that loneliness can lead to a number of negative outcomes, including faster cognitive decline, depression and negativity. Cacioppo’s research suggests that the lonely view themselves to be passive victims of their social world and often feel unsafe, therefore heightening their own sensitivity towards threat. He believes that this increased attention to threat caused by loneliness can affect a lonely person even outside of their conscious awareness. For instance, lonely individuals are often conscious of a desire to connect/reconnect with people, but while attempting to do so, their social interactions are often plagued with attentional and memory biases that confirm their belief that they are in a threatening situation. Basically, if you’re subconsciously looking for danger, chances are that you’re more likely to see it. Press reports indicate that Rodger had made several attempts to connect with women in his early teens, almost all of which ended in drunken brawls and humiliating arguments; behaviour that is seemingly consistent with this theory.
Cacioppo’s research additionally suggests that not only is loneliness sad, but it can also be dangerous. It was found that when viewing negative social images (i.e. disturbing images of people) in an fMRI scanner, the brains of lonely people showed lesser activity in the temporal parietal region, which is responsible for empathy, suggesting that loneliness may adversely affect empathy.
Loneliness has also been linked with physical pain. A study conducted by Eisenberger and colleagues in 2003 suggests that the brain bases of loneliness and physical pain are the same. In this study, participants played a virtual ball toss game whilst in the fMRI scanner. Participants believed they were playing with two other anonymous players online. What each participant didn’t know is that they were actually playing a computer program, which was pre-set to ensure that the participant is included by the players only for the first two minutes of the game, and rejected in the remaining time. This social isolation and rejection showed increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with physical pain.
Social isolation can also make people feel cold…..quite literally. In one study at The University of Toronto, researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli first asked some subjects to remember times when they were socially excluded such as being left out of a group lunch meeting and others to remember times when they were socially included, such as being invited to one. Next, in a seemingly unrelated task, all the subjects were asked to estimate the temperature of the room. It was found that people remembering social exclusion rated the room to be chillier than people who remembered social inclusion. Their second study found that subjects who were socially isolated preferred warm food over cold, as measured by their ratings in a subsequent task.
“Loneliness is stigmatized….the psychological equivalent of a person being a loser in life or a weak person” John Cacioppo, at TEDxDesMoines, Sept.2013
The fact that isolation can affect our mental and physical state to such a large extent makes it an important area for further investigation on the clinical triggers that lead to violence. However, loneliness isn’t something human beings necessarily want to associate themselves with, which can make this emotional state difficult to measure in the laboratory; a lonely person often suppresses such emotions, causing them to withdraw from society even further. While Rodger openly spoke about his lonely state in his retribution videos, his written account suggests that his loneliness was suppressed in his early adulthood and was something he was greatly ashamed of at the time.
Additionally, loneliness is often trivialized in society. It is rare to see loneliness being addressed as an issue that is as dangerous as substance abuse or even obesity. Nevertheless, the empirical evidence on the negative consequences of loneliness suggests that it may be deadly to ignore its existence. The Elliot Rodger case is evidence of how the failure to adequately address and deal with a lonely mental state can contribute towards the development of violence, hate, and a desire to harm within a young boy who may have acted differently, had he not felt isolated.