Lonely people process the world differently, study finds

The Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy may have been onto something when he wrote the opening line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

A recent study published in Psychological Science and led by a scholar now at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, suggests that when it comes to their brains processing information, people who are not lonely are all alike, but every lonely person processes the world in their own, idiosyncratic way.

Copious research shows that loneliness is detrimental to well-being and is often accompanied by self-reported feelings of not being understood by others. A recent report from the United States Surgeon General's office referred to loneliness as a public health crisis in reaction to the growing number of adults suffering from this condition. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.

Loneliness is idiosyncratic

While she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, Elisa Baek, assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife, sought to better understand what contributes to such feelings of disconnection and being misunderstood. Baek and her team used a neuroimaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of 66 first-year college students while they watched a series of video clips. The videos ranged in topic from sentimental music videos to party scenes and sporting events, providing a diverse array of scenarios for analysis.

Before being scanned, the participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 21, were asked to complete the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a survey that measures a person's subjective feelings of loneliness and feelings of social isolation.

Based on the survey results, the researchers separated the participants into two groups: lonely and "nonlonely" (those not experiencing loneliness). They then scanned each participant's brain using fMRI as the participant watched the videos.

Comparing the brain imaging data between the two groups, the researchers discovered that lonelier individuals exhibited more dissimilar and idiosyncratic brain processing patterns than their non-lonely counterparts.

This finding is significant because it reveals that neural similarity, which refers to how similar the brain activity patterns of different individuals are, is linked to a shared understanding of the world. This shared understanding is important for establishing social connections. People who suffer from loneliness are not only less similar to society's norm of processing the world, but each lonely person differs in unique ways, as well. That uniqueness may further impact the feelings of isolation and lacking social connections.

Baek said, "It was surprising to find that lonely people were even less similar to each other." The fact that they don't find commonality with lonely or nonlonely people makes achieving social connection even more difficult for them.

The 'Anna Karenina principle' is a fitting description of lonely people, as they experience loneliness in an idiosyncratic way, not in a universally relatable way."

Elisa Baek, assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife

Loneliness isn't about having or not having friends

So, does idiosyncratic processing in lonely individuals cause loneliness, or is it a result of loneliness?

The researchers observed that individuals with high levels of loneliness -; regardless of how many friends or social connections they had -; were more likely to have idiosyncratic brain responses. This raised the possibility that being surrounded by people who see the world differently from oneself may be a risk factor for loneliness, even if one socializes regularly with them.

The study also suggests that because social connections or disconnections fluctuate over time, it may influence the extent to which an individual processes the world idiosyncratically.

Looking forward, Baek said she is interested in examining people who have friends and are socially active but still feel lonely. In addition, the researchers are looking at what particular situations lonely individuals process differently. For example, do lonely people show idiosyncrasies when processing unexpected events or ambiguous social contexts in which things can be interpreted differently?

About the study:

Funding for the study came from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Journal reference:

Baek, E. C., et al. (2023) Lonely Individuals Process the World in Idiosyncratic Ways. Psychological Science. doi.org/10.1177/09567976221145316.


  1. Michael Bright Michael Bright United States says:

    We're not "lonely" we're loners. It's not a disease and we don't want to be cured. But I wouldn't expect a normie to get that.

  2. John Micheal John Micheal Nigeria says:

    To be honest the person that came up with the fact that lonely people tend to think in an idiosyncratic way is probably referring to he or herself..or the people she got to review were probably idiots..just my opinion

    • Ares Victor Ares Victor United States says:

      I'm not sure you understood the article. You may be right, they may be projecting their own experience but this article only claims that lonely people are distinct in their thought process, and different to non-lonely people, and surprisingly even more different to other lonely people. I'm not defending the veracity of the article (although as someone extremely lonely it makes some sense to me). Maybe you are confusing the word idiosyncratic with Idiocracy? Or?...

  3. tamara berenberg tamara berenberg United States says:

    I'm 75 years old and this article has opened up my sight to my life, my whole life. So the question still remains. Was I born this way? Was it a learned experience? Did my being unwanted, even before birth, then being abused, cause this? Can this behavior be changed? More questions for the future.

  4. Brian Jackson Brian Jackson United States says:

    Complete waste of money.

  5. Joseph Barone Joseph Barone Colombia says:

    Excellent article that provided me a better understanding of self.

  6. Aura Elrock Aura Elrock Romania says:

    So let me get this right....we shouldn't all think on our own ? Maybe just maybe Loneley people just see the (specifically in this case too) party culture and on and off relationships as a stupid thing to engage in . By the way 66 people are way not enough for research like this. Especially because no heritage and or culture differences were named . As an european i WILL think differently compared to us folk anyway ...loneley or not.

  7. A. C. A. C. United States says:

    These comments somehow prove the point of the article. Loneliness the definition AND the feeling are perceived differently by everyone. Therefore no-one really should be able to say how another.person processes it. What it tells me.is to simply be cognizant of that fact going through life.

  8. Lolita Gonzalez Lolita Gonzalez United States says:

    I agree because I've never fit in anywhere always been a loner acutely sensitive to the world around me. Many happy people can be very cruel not on purpose just not thinking. life is serious business those of us that are loners are guarding of  ourselves.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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