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A new study finds that moving a lot leads to loneliness — but also leads us to expand our social networks.

Americans move a lot. That's been the case historically, going back to the early expansion westward, and it remains the case in modern times. Fifty years ago the one-year mobility rate for Americans was more than 20 percent — twice that of the British, and nearly three times that of the Japanese. The trend may be declining [PDF], but recent census figures still suggest that at least two in five Americans move within a five-year period [PDF].

What effect this movement has on social behavior is an ongoing question for University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi. In the past few years, Oishi (with the help of research collaborators) has found that frequent moving has a more negative impact on introverts than extraverts, and that it influences the type of people we prefer to befriend, and that it might play a role in America's fondness for strip malls. He's called the study of residential mobility "a key to understanding the future of mind and behavior in the increasingly mobile world."

Oishi's latest work, set to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, looks at the relationship between residential mobility and social networks. He and a small army of fellow researchers conclude that the stress of moving around often manifests as loneliness and sadness. In turn, these emotions motivate people to expand their group of friends beyond those they'd otherwise include if they just stayed put.

The researchers ran two related experiments to reach their latest findings. In the first test, they split 133 undergraduates into three groups. One group, being primed for mobility, was asked to imagine getting a dream job that required them to move cities every other year. A second group, primed for stability, was asked to imagine getting a dream job that meant moving once but then staying in the same place for a decade. A third group, the control, just thought about their average day.

The groups spent ten minutes writing about this pretend existence then estimated how many friends they'd have if it came to be. (The controls just wrote about their daily lives and current friends.) When the researchers reviewed these tasks, they found the people in the mobility group used more words related to loneliness and sadness in their essays, and predicted they'd have fewer friends, than people in the other groups did.

In their second test, Oishi and company did something that too few psychologists do these days: broadened their study population beyond a college campus. They split this new sample into the same three groups mentioned above, plus an even more stable group that imagined getting a dream job in your current home city, and asked participants to perform the same tasks. Just as before, people in the mobility group expressed more loneliness and predicted fewer friends than those in the other groups.

Test participants then rated how motivated they would feel to expand their circle of friends in their new lives. As expected, the mobility group reported feeling more eager to make a wider group of friends, but the finding came with an "unexpected" twist. The researchers determined that someone's level of loneliness — and not the anticipated shrinking of a social network — that triggered the motivation. In other words, Oishi and company argue, it was the psychological threat of post-move loneliness and sadness that compelled people to seek out other people.

The research adds to Oishi's body of mobility work, but it's limited a bit by it's theoretical nature. There's no way around that — no review board is going to let researchers move people to a different state then see how they hold up — but it would be nice to get self-report data from people willing to reflect on an actual move. One also wonders how much distance matters: presumably moving from Apartment 3B to 13B is less stressful than moving from Manhattan to Hoboken, which is presumably less stressful than moving from Hoboken to Ohio.

It might also be fruitful to examine how moving into a city differs from moving out of one. "With ever-changing human landscapes, it is important to delineate how changes in social structure might affect our social network strategies in the future," Oishi and company conclude. This ever-changing landscape is increasingly urban: what that means for us, as social beings, is a question of great moment.

Photo credit: dotshock /Shutterstock

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