New research provides evidence that social isolation is associated with reduced social perception and emotion recognition skills. The findings, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, suggest that social cognitive capacity predicts objective isolation but not feelings of loneliness.
“Loneliness has been increasingly recognized as a major societal problem — population studies have shown that it has a higher impact on mortality rates than hypertension and obesity,” explained study author Łukasz Okruszek, the head of the Social Neuroscience Lab at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
“Importantly, it has been emphasized that the feeling of loneliness is driven mostly by one’s perception of social relationships rather than by objective qualities of social relationships per se. The same relationship (e.g. marriage) may be perceived as either loving and caring or detached and unaffectionate, depending on one’s personal experiences, attitudes, and needs.”
“Thus, while loneliness can be linked to objective social isolation, the former does not implicate the latter,” Okruszek explained. “People may often report feeling lonely even despite maintaining numerous social ties. Given the important role that cognitive processes play in our appraisals of social relationships, we decided to examine the association between both subjective and objective social isolation and cognitive processes that underlie processing and interpretation of social information.”
In the study, 252 individuals (aged 18–50) with no history of psychiatric or neurological disorders completed assessments of subjective loneliness and objective social isolation. Objective social isolation was measured by asking the participants the number of relatives with whom they were in regular contact, could seek help from, and could confide in. Subjective loneliness, on the other hand, was measured by asking the participants the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “No one really knows me well” and “I feel isolated from others.”
The participants also completed several validated tests of social cognitive capacity, such as the ability to recognize others’ emotional states and infer someone else’s state of mind.
The researchers found that those with a higher level of objective social isolation tended to exhibit worse social cognitive capacity. However, this was not the case for subjective feelings of loneliness.
“Contrary to our hypotheses, we observed that social perception and emotion recognition were associated with objective social isolation, but not loneliness,” Okruszek told PsyPost. “In contrast, a tendency to attribute hostile intentions in ambiguous social situations (a ‘hostility bias’) was associated with both objective social isolation and loneliness. This finding suggests that social cognitive biases may be among the targets for interventions that are aimed at reducing loneliness.”
But more research is needed on the longitudinal associations between social cognitive abilities and social isolation.
“While we have shown which cognitive mechanisms are linked with loneliness and objective social isolation, the trajectories linking these findings with health outcomes observed in lonely and isolated individuals are still to be explored,” Okruszek said. “Previous studies have found that structural and functional abnormalities may be observed in lonely individuals in key brain structures that are involved in the processing of social information.”
“In addition, the feeling of loneliness may negatively impact heart rate variability, which can serve as an indicator of the ability to regulate activity in response to unknown and potentially threatening stimuli in the environment. Thus, the goal of our further studies is to examine the relationship between cognitive mechanisms, activity of brain networks during social information processing and physiological (reduced heart rate variability) markers in lonely individuals.”
“As noted above, loneliness is a major public health challenge, and its prevalence and importance is even more pronounced given the global pandemic, the consequences of which will likely be felt for years if not decades,” Okruszek added. “We believe it is critically important to understand how loneliness influences health and quality of life, and hope that this work, along with that of others, will ultimately benefit society.”
The study, “Owner of a lonely mind? Social cognitive capacity is associated with objective, but not perceived social isolation in healthy individuals“, was authored by Ł. Okruszek, A. Piejka, M. Krawczyk, A. Schudy, M. Wisniewska, K. Zurek, and A. Pinkham.