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Focusing On Socially Threatening Stimuli Relates to Loneliness

This surprising investigation conducted by Bangee et al. found evidence that people who score higher on the UCLA loneliness scale pay more attention to socially threatening stimuli than non-lonely peers.

Loneliness is a feeling of distress caused by an individuals’ perceived lack of fulfilling social relationships (Peplau & Perlman in Bangee et al., 2014). It relates to poorer mental and physical health and is known to intensify mental health conditions such as depression (Bangee et al., 2014).

The UCLA loneliness scale measures loneliness in 20 questions such as "‘How often do you feel left out?". It has shown reliability and validity for measuring loneliness accurately. This scale was applied to 85 undergraduate students at the University of North England.

Participants were then shown videos of social scenes of teenagers at lunch which depicted both positive and negative interactions. Eight 20 second clips were shown, with a 3 second interval between each. Every clip contained both positive and negative social interactions.

While participants watched the clips, their eye movements were tracked using eye-tracking technology in order to identify their areas of interest and focus.

The researchers wanted to know: are there differences between lonely and non-lonely adults in the way they attend to social threatening stimuli?

Results found that participants who had scored higher on the loneliness scale (those in the upper quadrant of loneliness scores) paid more visual attention to social threat stimuli in the clips across the first 3 time intervals than other participants. Then, the authors state, they "showed the same avoidant viewing style as the non-lonely participants" (Bangee et al., 2014).

These results support Cacioppo and Hawkley's model of loneliness, which proposes that lonelier people are hyper-vigilant to social threat, especially in regards to stimuli that relates to social rejection or exclusion.

These findings can be valuable in addressing negative biases that may accentuate the feeling of loneliness.


  • Bangee, M., Harris, R. A.,Bridges, N., Rotenberg, K. J. & Qualter, P. 2014. Loneliness and attention to social threat in young adults: Findings from an eye tracker study. Personality and Individual Differences, 63, 16-23

Article written by Maggie Stilman.

The Considerable Journal.

The Considerable Journal's mission is to bring relevant scientific findings closer to people who seek evidence-based paths to integral well-being, by providing briefed, straightforward expositions of scientific research regarding mental and physical health, relationships, habits, and more.


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