Examining the visual processing patterns of lonely adults

Bangee, Munirah orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-8548-6692 and Qualter, Pamela (2018) Examining the visual processing patterns of lonely adults. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 59 (4). pp. 351-359. ISSN 0036-5564

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1111/sjop.12436


Prior research has shown that loneliness is associated with hypervigilance to social threats, with eye-tracking research showing lonely people display a specific attentional bias when viewing social rejection and social exclusion video footage (Bangee, Harris, Bridges, Rotenberg & Qualter, 2014; Qualter, Rotenberg, Barrett et al., 2013). The current study uses eye-tracker methodology to examine whether that attentional bias extends to negative emotional faces and negative social non-rejecting stimuli, or whether it could be explained only as a specific bias to social rejection/exclusion. It is important to establish whether loneliness relates to a specific or general attention bias because it may explain the maintenance of loneliness. Participants (N = 43, F = 35, Mage = 20 years and 2 months, SD = 3 months) took part in three tasks, where they viewed different social information: Task 1 – slides displaying four faces each with different emotions (anger, afraid, happy and neutral), Task 2 – slides displaying sixteen faces with varying ratios expressing happiness and anger, and Task 3 – slides displaying four visual scenes (socially rejecting, physically threatening, socially positive, neutral). For all three tasks, eye movements were recorded in real time with an eye-tracker. Results showed no association between loneliness and viewing patterns of facial expressions, but an association between loneliness and hypervigilant viewing of social rejecting stimuli. The findings indicate that lonely adults do not have a generalised hypervigilance to social threat, but have, instead, a specific attentional bias to rejection information in social contexts. Implications of the findings for interventions are discussed.

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