Article By Matt Johnson Ph.D.
~ DECEMBER 2021 ~ Each year there’s that one must-have gift. In 2007, it was the iPhone. In 1984, it was the first Air Jordans. In 1975? A rock. That’s right. 1975 was the year of the pet rock. Accessibly priced at $4 each, the rocks came in a cardboard box shaped like a cage, with cutouts to allow for air.
These were, of course, completely ordinary rocks that could be plucked from anyone’s backyard. But Pet Rocks flew off the shelves. In 1975, over 1.5 million rocks were sold, and they made their ‘inventor’ Gary Dahl, a millionaire almost overnight.
The Pet Rock was an odd quirky fad, which faded out in less than a year. But the fascination with it holds a deeper truth about human nature: We effortlessly assign animacy and human-like characteristics to clearly inanimate things. At the level of facts and information, we know it’s a rock. But when we look at it, we can’t help to feel that it’s more than that. It has a mind of its own with thoughts, feelings, and emotions just like we do.
The key to Pet Rock’s success may have been the way it ingeniously tapped into this tendency. Each rock came with a 30 page, tongue in cheek manual for their care. This included gems like this: “If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers. The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you remove it.” We’re so primed to apply animate characteristics to things, that these were all the hints we needed.
In 1975, the Pet Rock was a fun fad. But now in modern times, they could be taken to mean something else entirely: a cure for loneliness. That’s right. More and more, humans are turning to inanimate objects to fill their unmet social needs. If we can so easily see a rock as “human-like”, just wait for what artificially intelligent algorithms and anthropomorphic robotics can do. As we’ll see, modern technology is galvanizing the loneliness economy.
Wherever we look, there’s money to be made in loneliness. Business is booming. But how does loneliness “work”? And what kind of market opportunities does it present? To understand how loneliness influences consumer behavior, we first have to understand a bit about social psychology.
The Psychology of Loneliness and Why Loneliness Is On The Rise
Humans are deeply social creatures. As we’ve examined from evolutionary psychology, our ability to collaborate may be the hallmark of the human species. We can’t run the fastest, fight the most ferociously, or see the farthest. But at our best, we can work together better than any other species.
This means that “feeling social” isn’t just a mood for happy hours and weekends. It’s always with us; one of our key drives, just like thirst and hunger. We have a natural predilection towards being in the presence of others and are typically much more content when others are around. And just like hunger and thirst, we feel something is missing when our social needs aren’t met. When we go through periods of isolation – as many have had during COVID lockdowns – we experience a feeling of withdrawal.
We feel hungry when we’re deprived of food, and thirsty when we’re deprived of liquids. The feeling of loneliness is akin to the body telling us we’re deprived of social connection. Loneliness isn’t just a bummer. It’s also bad for us. Just like with food and water, when these signals go unheeded, there can be deleterious health effects.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University recently authored a large-scale meta-analysis on social isolation and loneliness, consisting of over 200 studies and 3.7M participants. Her research suggests that prolonged periods of loneliness and isolation can have serious adverse effects, including heart disease, stroke, depression, and premature death. As she describes, “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’
Loneliness is indeed on the rise. It’s tempting to think that this is merely the result of lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Holt-Lunstad’s research shows that these loneliness trends go back to the mid-2010s.
In the United States, loneliness has been on the rise since 2015, especially among younger demographics. YouGov reports that roughly 30% of U.S. millennials report feeling lonely all or most of the time. Similar numbers have been found in Asia, and in Western Europe. In Germany, 70% believe loneliness to be a serious problem.
The UK has been noted to be especially lonesome. Over half of U.K. employees report feeling lonely at work, and at home, nearly 75% describe their neighbors as “strangers”. In 2016, 1 in 10 Brits reported that they did not have a single friend to rely upon. In 2020, that number shot up to 1 in 8! Indeed, the issue has reached something of a political breaking point: in 2018 the prime minister went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.
The Solution for Lonely Consumers: Human Connection
If the problem is loneliness, the solution is simple: human connection. But that may be easier said than done. The current era – replete with media fragmentation, political polarization, and social media hostility – doesn’t naturally lend itself to compassionate encounters, which is part of the reason there’s a loneliness epidemic in the first place. Social distancing measures and government lockdowns have accelerated these trends.
More and more, curing loneliness the “old-fashioned way” is becoming difficult. But while governments scramble for answers, the market has already sprung into action. And the means by which companies capitalize on this demand can seem somewhat dystopian.
This includes the RentAFriend app, which as the name implies, helps match you with “friends”. Except this isn’t “Tinder for friendships”, it’s a transactional service. You pay the person $40/hr to serve as your temporary friend. They’ll get dinner with you, grab drinks after work, or – for an extra fee, attend a concert with. It operates in dozens of countries around the world and offers over 620,000 platonic friends for hire online.
Rent-a-friend is far from alone. There are a host of platforms that provide different loneliness-based services. In The Lonely Century, Noreena Hertz chronicles the case of “Carl”, the man who went into financial debt supporting his need for connection. And no, this wasn’t prostitution or escort services. Carl became unable to live without paid cuddling.
Hordes of services have popped which provide professional cuddling services. Carl’s first experience was with Jean, his paid cuddler, who would cuddle and caress him for $80/hour. He describes the experience as “transformative”. “I went from really depressed and very unproductive at work to someone whose productivity skyrocketed.”
This brought Carl the instant cure for the loneliness he longed for. But while this started out positive, his drive became insatiable. $80/hr a few times a week quickly ballooned to $2,000/week. Ultimately he gave up his apartment and lived in his car in order to support his cuddle habit.
As Hertz describes, “It’s a tragic story. A professional middle-aged man so desperate for human contact that in order to be able to afford it, he’s been willing to give up his home..his life had become so barren that these were the lengths he was willing to go to.”
Loneliness Is An Unmet Social Need
Carl may be unique in the lengths he went to fill this unmet need. But he’s far from alone. A burgeoning loneliness economy has been on the rise for years. The market is capitalizing on rising demand for human connection in that ‘regular’ relationships aren’t meeting.
As we’ve seen, many of these involve transactional human interactions. But other solutions take humans out of the picture completely. Instead, these are products that go the “Pet Rock” route: objects which tap into our tendency to personify inanimate entities. And in doing so, finding a cure for loneliness outside the human realm. It’s one thing to approach this loneliness epidemic by putting people together – even transactionally, but it’s a very different thing to removing other people completely.
Loneliness is an unmet social need. But the impact of loneliness actually goes beyond just a drive to connect. It changes how we connect with others. And as well see, how we connect with other things. In the next piece, we’ll explore the psychology of how loneliness warps our sense of reality. And how this provides a whole new level to the emerging loneliness economy.