When people smile at us, we smile back – involuntarily. But this skill may become lost after prolonged loneliness.
Researchers at the University of California have found one of the possible signs of loneliness. According to a pre-publication of the study on PsyArXiv.com, a person stays lonely due to abnormalities in the brain’s processing of social signals (such as eye contact and smiling) that underlie positive social interaction. One consequence of breaking this processing reaction is the inability to respond with a smile to another person’s smile automatically. In normal social interaction, this happens naturally.
To study the phenomenon, the researchers conducted an experiment. Thirty-five students filled out questionnaires, and according to the answers received, scales of loneliness, depression and personality characteristics were formed for each of them. On the scale of loneliness, they were divided into two groups: “lonely” or “not lonely”. Each participant had electrodes attached to the facial muscles responsible for smiling (cheeks) and frowning (eyebrows). After that, the participant watched a series of videos, and the researchers recorded the work of their facial muscles.
It turned out that participants in both groups reacted, in general, the same way when watching the videos. In response to negative images on the screen (for example, an angry face), participants in both groups involuntarily furrowed their eyebrows, and in response to positive images (for example, beautiful views of nature), they smiled. The obvious difference was caused only by the images of joyful, happy faces. These caused a smile only among the participants from the “not lonely” group. At the same time, the results on the scales of extraversion and depression did not in any way affect the involuntary facial expressions of the participants. According to the results of the experiment, the researchers suggested that the inability to respond with a smile to a previous smile is a characteristic feature of loneliness, which speaks of isolation from society. This disability is a behavioural mechanism that prevents single people from returning to society, for often people do not reach out to those who will not respond.