People who feel lonely may be more wary of negative social activity in their environment, according to a study published in Cortex earlier this year.
The study supports research that husband-and-wife researchers John and Stephanie Cacioppo—directors of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago—and others have conducted that suggests lonely people, who may be more focused on self-preservation, are unconsciously acting to protect themselves from potentially negative social interactions.
Are Lonely People More Likely to Interpret Social Signs as Negative?
In the Cortex study, 70 participants were given a Stroop test in which they were asked to identify the color of ink—rather than the meaning—of words presented in four categories: social positive (words such as belong and party); social negative (alone, solitary); emotional positive (enjoy, success); and emotional negative (frustrated, depressed).brain activity for differences in reaction time. As researchers expected, the high loneliness group had a faster reaction to negative words than the low loneliness group, suggesting people who are already lonely may be more attentive to negative social interactions.
The same researchers published a similar study in Cognitive Neuroscience in August. In that study, 19 participants—10 of whom were lonely—were shown seven blocks of 28 pictures equally divided among four categories: social threat (moments of social rejection); nonsocial non-threat (neutral pictures); social non-threat (social interactions); and nonsocial threat (snakes). They were asked to rate the images as pleasant or unpleasant while sensors recorded their brain activity.
Brain activity—assessed by an electroencephalogram (EEG)—occurred earlier for lonely participants in response to social pictures as compared to participants who were not lonely. Lonely participants also used the part of their brains associated with attention and threat in response to imagery they found socially threatening.
What Does This Mean For People Who Feel Lonely?
Though research indicates that loneliness is a risk factor in early mortality and may cause people to unconsciously judge social interactions more negatively, Dr. Louise Hawkley—senior research scientist at the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago—says there are things that people who often feel lonely can do to mitigate those risks.
“To avoid the negative consequences of this unconscious bias in information processing, it helps to become aware that your brain gets hijacked this way so that you can counter these automatic tendencies with more reasoned responses (e.g., just because I’m new in a social setting doesn’t mean others are out to get me),” Hawkley said in an email.
- Aamodt, S. (2012). An Interview with John Cacioppo: The Science of Loneliness. Retrieved from: http://www.beinghuman.org/article/interview-john-cacioppo-science-loneliness
- Cacioppo, S., Balogh, S., and Cacioppo J.T. (2015). Implicit Attention to Negative Social, in Contrast to Nonsocial, Words in the Stroop Task Differs Between Individuals High and Low in Loneliness: Evidence from Event-Related Brain Microstates. Cortex, Vol 70 (September 2015), 213-233. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.032
- Cacioppo, S., Munirah, B., Balogh, B., Cardenas-Iniguez, C., Qualter, P., and Cacioppo, J. (2015). Loneliness and implicit attention to social threat: A high-performance electrical neuroimaging study. Cognitive Neuroscience. doi: 10.1080/17588928.2015.1070136
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T., and Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol 10 (2), 227-237. doi: 0.1177/1745691614568352
- Pascual-Marqui, R.D., Michel, C.M., and Lehmann, D. (1995). Segmentation of brain electrical activity into microstates: model estimation and validation. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, Vol 42 (7), 658-665. doi: 10.1109/10.391164
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