Study Shows More Vigilance to Negative in Lonely Brains

Woman sitting by herself on park benchPeople 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).

In this group of 70, 38 participants were ranked as high in loneliness and 32 as low in loneliness. Researchers analyzed 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.


  1. Aamodt, S. (2012). An Interview with John Cacioppo: The Science of Loneliness. Retrieved from:
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stefani Kim, Correspondent

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Brock

    October 7th, 2015 at 2:27 PM

    I truly see this sort of tendency in my own sister.
    She spends a whole lot of time by herself and she says that this is with reason, that there are not really all that many people that she likes. I guess that’s alright but you know, it seems like she is lonelier than she is letting on and I wish that she could snap out of that.
    I don’t know if she is depressed or what really is going on with her but I can’t do much about it because she insists that she is fine.

  • dillon

    October 9th, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    But don’t you know that when you are feeling this way that it usually takes so much more than just telling yourself that there isn’t all of that out there to get you? It is like just telling yourself that is not enough to overcome those feelings.

  • Josie

    October 12th, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    It sometimes seems that people who are lonely are that way because of that negative outlook in life that they have and perhaps that is why they are lonely… no one else wants to have to deal with that in their life.

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