Loneliness makes us feel unsafe

Loneliness not only hurts, but it makes us more aware of social threats and sensitive to social cues. Feeling isolated creates a warning signal, somewhat like physical pain, that prepares the individual to repair social connections.

The feeling of threat can alter how one views social information. Lonely people tend to monitor social cues more closely to avoid rejection and seek connection. Eye tracking studies have shown that lonely individuals attend more to threatening social stimuli than non-lonely individuals do. For example, when shown pictures depicting either violence, social rejection, positive social interactions, or neutral landscapes, lonely individuals gazed longer the social rejective pictures compared to non-lonely individuals.

Loneliness also affects how brain processes social information. One study found that brain areas that usually activate with rewarding stimuli, were less active in lonely individuals when they viewed pleasant pictures of people as opposed to pleasant objects. For non-lonely individuals pictures of people elicited larger activity. Social stimuli may thus be less rewarding for lonely individuals. On the other hand, loneliness or exclusion can also enhance attention to positive signals, such as warm and accepting faces. Attuning to social information, whether positive or negative, may help lonely individuals to react faster when there is opportunity to re-connect or to protect themselves from rejection.

Negative interpretations and rejection sensitivity are common in loneliness. Lonely individuals tend to rate both themselves and other people more negatively, have feelings of lower self-worth and view other people as less trustworthy. The feeling of unsafety makes lonely individuals more likely to adopt self-preservation mode, which may be self-defeating especially when occurring in safe interactions. This mode means that the individual focuses on self-protection and draws attention inward to avoid rejection. Interventions for loneliness that target the maladaptive social cognitions have been found to be more effective than interventions that try to improve social skills or increase opportunities for social interaction.

One study examined the effects of altering the cognitions of lonely individuals. Lonely individuals were primed with acceptance related words or asked to write an essay about their hopes and aspirations to reduce preventive-focused mind-set. The primes reduced lonely individuals concern for social evaluation and motivation for social avoidance. Interestingly priming also affected face-to-face interaction. Lonely individuals who were primed with acceptance were found to mimic more their conversation partner’s gestures than lonely individuals who were not primed. This kind of non-verbal mimicry can often increase feelings of connection between individuals. It could be that reducing the fear and anxiety related to loneliness makes it possible to direct attention outward and help in reconnecting.

The studies on loneliness have commonly used self-assessment measures or investigated reactions to images, while face-to-face interaction is seldomly studied. Images and videos are bound to be less ecologically valid and emotionally arousing than real-life interaction. The studies conducted in Human Information Processing Laboratory have demonstrated multiple times that a gaze of a real person elicits affective autonomic arousal not elicited by pictures or videos of people. This is understandable, because in social interaction there is always a possibility for acceptance and rejection.

Our research group in the Human Information Processing Laboratory studies association of loneliness and affective reactions during social interactions. We will study affective reactions during face-to-face interactions using wide variety of methods including psychophysiological measures (EEG, heart rate, skin conductance) as well as behavioral and self-assessment measures. In addition to individual reactions, we will measure synchronization of the autonomic responses between individuals to investigate reciprocal attuning patterns. We are looking for 18–50-year-old Finnish speaking people to participate to the study. The data collection is conducted in collaboration with Active Mind Lab in University of Jyväskylä and the experiments will be conducted in Jyväskylä. If you are interested in participating, please contact us via email (katsetutkimus@jyu.fi).

More information about the study in Finnish can be found here.


Elisa Vuoriainen