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Unconscious Ways People Form Relationships

Studies reveal an automatically activated system to avoid loneliness.

Key points

  • The social monitoring system consists of several mechanisms which kick in automatically to help people form relationships and avoid rejection.
  • Those with the greatest need for relationships exhibit enhanced sensitivity to social cues via empathic accuracy.
  • Loneliness was positively related to enhanced memory for social information, but not other information unrelated to relationships.

Sigmund Freud was right about one thing: People’s behavior can be affected by unconscious, or automatic, processes of which they are unaware. This is particularly true regarding people’s need for social relationships.

Ever notice that when you’re hungry, you seem to see every billboard for fast food and remember its exact exit from the freeway? This temporary shift in thinking, referred to as motivated cognition, is not limited to the search for food. Several studies reveal how people’s thoughts, memory, and behavior change automatically to help them form social relationships—which psychologists refer to as the social monitoring system.

The Social Monitoring System

People were meant to have a minimal number of close, positive relationships. Whether that’s a regular group chat with friends, family members they can call on, or a pet that seems to be a great listener, people need relationships. When relational needs are unmet—perhaps if someone is lonely or has been rejected, ostracized, or excluded—their desire for relationships becomes heightened. That is, they crave being around other people even more.

Unfortunately, craving relationships and “putting yourself out there” can be risky. The possibility of asking an acquaintance out for coffee could lead to rejection. Swiping right on everyone’s Tinder dating profile may lead to a dearth of matches, further frustrating one’s desire for a relationship.

Thus, psychologists tend to believe that people have evolved a social monitoring system consisting of several mechanisms that kick in automatically to help people form relationships and avoid rejection. Below are two components of the social monitoring system that unconsciously or automatically help people form relationships.

1. Enhanced Sensitivity to Social Cues

To successfully form a new relationship, it helps if people can successfully interpret others’ thoughts and feelings. Imagine, for instance, that someone invites you to a party on the weekend. Their invitation may be genuine, and they truly want you to attend. Conversely, they may have felt pressured to invite you to the party for some reason, but would truly prefer if you didn’t go.

When deciding whether or not to attend, there are a couple of risks to weigh. If you’re unwelcome at the party but show up anyway, people may ignore you, thus further frustrating your relational needs. But if you were truly welcome at the party and chose not to attend, you miss a real opportunity to connect with others.

To test whether people’s desire for relationships predicted their ability to interpret others' thoughts and feelings, researchers Cynthia Pickett, Wendi Gardner, and Megan Knowles first measured participants’ need for relationships. Then, they had participants listen to someone say positive words (e.g., grateful) and negative words (e.g., distasteful) in either a positive or negative tone before deciphering whether the word’s semantic meaning and tone were matched or mismatched.

Afterward, participants watched a video of someone describing an emotional event. The researchers paused the video at several points and had participants infer how they thought the person was truly feeling.

Supporting the social monitoring system, participants with the greatest need for relationships were the most accurate in deciphering others’ vocal tones and feelings. Thus, the more people desire relationships, the better they may be at determining whether a party invitation, for example, was genuine.

Before showing up at this hypothetical party, it's also necessary to remember when and where the party is at. And when you arrive, the host will probably introduce you to dozens of people in attendance. Given the limits on people’s short-term memory, memorizing each person’s name is a tough task. Does the social monitoring system help with memory too?

2. Enhanced Memory for Social Information

In a later study, Gardner, Pickett, and Knowles collaborated with researcher Valerie Jefferis to test whether lonely people had a greater memory for socially-relevant information.

At the beginning of a college semester, the researchers had participants complete a measure of loneliness. Then, months later, they invited the same participants to read the diary of another college student. The researchers inserted fake details in the diary related to social events (e.g., getting into an argument with a roommate) or other random events (e.g., buying a lottery ticket). After participants read the fake diary, they were asked to recall as many details as possible.

Again, supporting the social monitoring system, people that were the loneliest had the best memory for socially-relevant details in the diary. Loneliness was unrelated to the memory of other events, such as buying a lottery ticket.

Therefore, the people who need relationships the most automatically activate a social monitoring system to help them achieve their relational needs. Heightened sensitivity to social cues and enhanced memory for social information are two subtle ways to help people form relationships.


Gardner, W. L., Pickett, C. L., Jefferis, V., & Knowles, M. (2005). On the outside looking in: Loneliness and social monitoring. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(11), 1549-1560.

Pickett, C. L., Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. (2004). Getting a cue: The need to belong and enhanced sensitivity to social cues. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(9), 1095-1107.

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