Exploring the Cognitive Biases of Lonely People: A Social and Cognitive Approach

Yang, Jingqi (2019) Exploring the Cognitive Biases of Lonely People: A Social and Cognitive Approach. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Current theoretical models of loneliness postulate that lonely individuals show attentional biases for rejection stimuli in social contexts (Bangee & Qualter, 2018), and memory biases for social information (Gardner et al., 2005). Further, it is suggested that these cognitive biases in lonely individuals then induce passive behaviour and social withdrawal (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009; Qualter et al., 2015; Spithoven, et al., 2017). The current thesis included two studies that sought to examine the cognitive biases in lonely people using cognitive experiments and observations of social behaviour.
The first study in the current thesis comprised three cognitive paradigms (serial recall, emotional stroop, and directed forgetting tasks) to investigate whether lonely people showed cognitive biases for task-irrelevant information. To explore the bidirectional relationship between loneliness and cognitive biases over time, a longitudinal component to the cognitive study was included. Seventy-seven university students completed the cognitive tasks at Time 1; 23 participants of the original sample group took part in Time 2. The Time 1 results showed that loneliness was associated with memory biases towards social threat information. The longitudinal study showed a bidirectional relationship between the two factors: a higher level of loneliness was linked to a memory bias over time, and a memory bias had a significant impact on the level of loneliness across two time points. Such findings suggest that cognitive biases may have a causal effect on the maintenance of loneliness: for example, perhaps a heightened recall of socially threatening information may perpetuate the belief that people are hostile and unfriendly (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009).
Study 2 used an observational method to explore behavioural withdrawal and social perceptions of lonely females in a same-sex friendship. One-hundred and sixteen female university students (58 friendship dyads) took part in a 15- minute filmed social interaction followed by questionnaires rating the interaction quality and friendship quality overall. The results showed that lonely individuals demonstrated a passive interaction style, whereas friends of lonely individuals showed more positive social behaviour towards their friends. In terms of their ratings of interaction quality, both members of the dyad rated the interaction as poor quality, but lonely individuals gave more negative ratings to themselves and their friends. The results suggested a strong link between loneliness and negative cognition in social interaction. The implications of the results of both studies for theoretical models and interventions is discussed.

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