The Lonely States Of America

Depression: Man with head in hands, partial graphic
This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

The American Sociological Review may have just published the social health equivalent of the 1964 Surgeon General's report that declared smoking causes cancer. The unpleasant but long suspected discovery in this case is that social isolation in America has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.

Some things are uncomfortable to know. We don't like knowing the earth is getting hotter; some people choose not to believe it. In 1964, about half of all adults smoked and they did not like knowing the habit caused cancer; some people chose not to believe it and some people still don't. The scientific evidence about smoking and cancer existed long before Jan. 11, 1964, but when the famous report was issued that day, people started believing it.

I expect something quieter and more eggheaded but quite similar will happen with an academic paper with the vanilla title, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades." The authors, Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, have no such wild pretensions, but I think they've documented an enormous, stunning social change so clearly that it will alter the way we look at social and political life. It should.

And it should scare you.

The authors set out to empirically describe how socially connected Americans are by asking them questions like, "Who are the peoplewith whom you discussed matters important to you?" They did this as part of the General Social Survey, the Rolls Royce of face-to-face social surveys that has been conducted almost every year since 1972. In 2004, they precisely replicated questions about social networks that had not been asked since 1985.

Because the findings are so stark and clear, and come with no linguistic and philosophic adornment, I'll let the numbers speak for themselves in blunt bullet points:

  • From 1985 to 2004, "the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled." Now, 24.6 percent report they have no confidants, family or non-family — that's one in four Americans. Another 19.6 percent say they have just one confidant. That means 43 percent of Americans have either no confidants or just one, a slice that has doubled since 1985.
  • More than half, 53.4 percent, do not have any confidants who aren't family. In 1985, 80 percent had at least one confidant who was not family; now only 57.2 percent do.
  • The average size of Americans' social networks decreased by a third between 1985 and 2004, from 2.94 to 2.08; basically this means the loss of one confidant.