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Loneliness

The Connection between Loneliness and Trust

New research shows that lonely people are less trusting of others.

Key points

  • During trust decisions, lonely people show reduced activity and connectivity in parts of the brain involved in trust formation, compared to non.
  • Lonely people benefit less from positive social interactions than others.
  • Reduced trust is likely a cause and consequence of loneliness.

Health experts sounded an alarm about a growing epidemic of loneliness in the United States, where at least one-third of adults are lonely. At the same time, research shows that approximately one-third of U.S. adults are “low trusters” who believe that people can’t be trusted and that others would try to take advantage of them. Is there a connection between feeling lonely and being distrustful of others?

Jana Lieberz of the University of Bonn and her colleagues recently published a study examining the relationship between loneliness and interpersonal trust.

The researchers asked lonely and nonlonely participants to play a “trust game” while lying inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. In this game, participants were given money and asked whether they wanted to keep it or provide some or all of it to an anonymous player. If they chose to share, the value of the money would triple, and the anonymous player would choose whether to keep the money or return some of it to the participant. Essentially, the participants could profit, but only if they gambled on trusting the other player.

The results showed that lonely participants shared less with others than nonlonely participants, presumably because they were less trusting. Furthermore, the fMRI showed that lonely participants had reduced activity and connectivity in parts of the brain involved in trust formation.

After the trust game, the participants climbed out of the scanner to begin the second part of the experiment: they engaged in a pleasant conversation with a research assistant. The researchers asked participants about their moods before and after the conversation. They also collected blood and saliva samples to measure participants’ oxytocin levels (a hormone associated with human bonding and trust). After the conversation, they asked participants to rate the trustworthiness of the assistant.

The results showed that nonlonely participants’ mood increased after the conversation, but the lonely participants did not. Also, lonely participants had less trust in their partners and produced less oxytocin than nonlonely participants.

Taken together, the results of this study suggest that lonely individuals have reduced interpersonal trust and may benefit less from positive social interactions than others.

The correlational nature of this study does not allow for causal inferences, but other research suggests that reduced trust can be both a cause and consequence of loneliness. People who are “low trusters” may develop a sense of being cut off from others or shy away from relationships, both of which cause them to experience loneliness. Reciprocally, loneliness may also bias perceptions of others’ trustworthiness (as explained in this blog post).

If you’re struggling with feelings of loneliness, you may benefit by examining your thoughts about other people. Are you a “low truster?” Do you see the world as a hostile place? If so, work on strengthening your trust. Take a gamble that most people are inherently good.

References

Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2018a). The growing problem of loneliness. The Lancet, 391(10119), 426. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30142-9

Lieberz, J., Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Saporta, N., Esser, T., Kuskova, E., Stoffel-Wagner, B., Hurlemann, R., & Scheele, D. (2021). Loneliness and the social brain: How perceived social isolation impairs human interactions. Advanced Science, e2102076. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.202102076

Rainie, L., & Perrin, A. (2020). The state of Americans’ trust in each other amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/06/the-state-of-americans…

Rotenberg, K. J., Addis, N., Betts, L. R., Corrigan, A., Fox, C., Hobson, Z., Rennison, S., Trueman, M., & Boulton, M. J. (2010). The relation between trust beliefs and loneliness during early childhood, middle childhood, and adulthood. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(8), 1086–1100. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167210374957

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