Findings published in Computers in Human Behavior suggest that a computerized training task can alter the way lonely people interpret ambiguous social information, reducing their negativity bias. The training task used trial-by-trial feedback to encourage a socially favorable interpretation of neutral and fearful facial expressions.
Socialization is an integral part of being human, and feeling isolated from others can soon lead to loneliness. Studies suggest that loneliness is becoming increasingly common, and when prolonged, can lead to serious mental and physical health consequences.
Numerous studies have pinpointed a negativity bias that occurs when lonely people process social information. This includes a hypervigilance to socially threatening stimuli and a bias toward interpreting ambiguous social scenes as hostile. This bias is considered a prevention-focused approach and is aimed at minimizing the chance of experiencing a social loss.
Study authors Yuseok Jeong and Sang Hee Kim designed a computerized training task that they hoped might encourage an alternate approach to interpreting social information. The task supported a promotion-focused social motivation, an approach motivated by maximizing social gains rather than reducing social losses.
The researchers had a group of undergraduate students complete the UCLA Loneliness Scale. They then recruited the 40 participants with the highest scores and the 40 participants with the lowest scores to partake in an experiment. Half of the participants in each group were assigned to take part in the promotion-focused training, and the other half were assigned to a control training group.
During the promotion-focused training, students went through a series of trials where they were asked to label ambiguous fearful and neutral facial expressions. Importantly, they received feedback that taught them to associate the facial expressions with socially positive labels (e.g., friendly). During the control training, students went through the same trials but were instead given feedback that associated the ambiguous expressions with less favorable interpretations (e.g., isolated). The control training was devised to reflect the negativity bias exhibited by lonely people.
All participants then took part in three tasks: one that assessed their willingness to approach an unfamiliar face, one assessing their recognition of emotional facial expressions, and one that asked them to interpret whether a series of surprised facial expressions were positive or negative.
Among lonely participants in the control group, as loneliness scores increased, participants were slower at recognizing fearful faces but faster at detecting angry faces. However, these associations were not found in the promotion training group. This suggests that the training may have reduced the lonely participants’ hypervigilance to social threat while teaching them to interpret ambiguous social information more favorably.
Moreover, students in the promotion training group were more likely to interpret surprised facial expressions favorably. The likelihood of interpreting the faces positively was greater among the lonely participants whose promotion mindset had increased the most (i.e., they chose more socially favorable labels as the training progressed).
Notably, lonely participants showed improvements in their recognition and interpretation of facial expressions with the training but saw no improvements in their willingness to approach faces. Jeong and Kim suggest that a one-time training session may not be enough to influence one’s decisions about approaching strangers. The authors suggest that future studies should test an interpretation training that consists of multiple sessions, in addition to exploring long-term changes in socioemotional processing after training.
The study, “Modification of socioemotional processing in loneliness through feedback-based interpretation training”, was authored by Yuseok Jeong and Sang Hee Kim.