Preliminary Evidence that Lonely People Lose the Reflex to Mimic Other People’s Smiles, Potentially Sustaining Their Isolation

Posted on June 20, 2019

An inability to automatically reflect the facial expression of others might cause lonely people to be trapped in isolation, according to a study carried out by researchers from the University of California. Loneliness is more than just an emotional state. It affects an individual’s physical health and raises the probability of death.

The study recruited 35 students as participants, and each of them were required to complete questionnaires assessing their loneliness, depression and personality. They were then categorised into ‘lonely’ and ‘not lonely’ groups based on their responses to the questionnaire. To examine their facial expressions, electrodes were attached to the facial muscles of the subjects while showing them videos of people creating various facial expressions.

Results show that students in both groups were able to identify the facial expressions accurately, but differ in how they responded to the faces shown to them. When they viewed angry faces, all of the student participants knitted their brows in response to mimic those in the video clips. When the faces in the video showed happiness, only students in the ‘non-lonely’ group produced a happy expression automatically. Students in the ‘lonely’ group were, however, able to make different facial expressions when explicitly told to do so.

The lack of an automatic mimicking response to happy facial expressions could lead to others thinking that the individual is unfriendly or hostile. As a result, people might be less willing to associate with such individuals, causing them to feel socially isolated and hence lonely. While this study has discovered connections between loneliness and facial expressions, it does not show any causal relations.

Through the findings of this research, more effective methods for dealing with loneliness can be formulated, enabling people to have improved physical and mental health.

Category(s):Social Isolation

Source material from The British Psychological Society Research Digest

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