Brief induction of loneliness decreases vagal regulation during social information processing

Author: Aleksandra Piejka1, Marcelina Wiśniewska1, Julian F Thayer2, Łukasz Okruszek3
1 Social Neuroscience Lab, Institute of Psychology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland.
2 Department of Psychological Science, 4201 Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway, University of California, Irvine, United States of America; Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, United States of America.
3 Social Neuroscience Lab, Institute of Psychology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland. Electronic address:
Conference/Journal: Int J Psychophysiol
Date published: 2021 Mar 18
Other: Special Notes: doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2021.03.002. , Word Count: 265

Perceived social isolation, or loneliness, has been repeatedly linked to numerous adverse health outcomes. Much effort has been directed towards elucidating the mechanisms underlying its effects on the cardiovascular system, which may explain the deleterious effects on morbidity and mortality. It has been previously suggested that perceived social isolation can impair effective parasympathetic regulation and physiological adjustment to the demands of the social environment. Thus, the present study aimed at investigating the causal impact of an induction of loneliness on vagal activity during social stimuli processing. In the study, participants (N = 119) were led to anticipate either a future filled with satisfying relationships (Future Belong) or a lonely life (Future Alone). Then, they were asked to complete an implicit emotion regulation task while their cardiovascular activity was recorded. In the Future Belong group, a pattern of vagal suppression was observed between the resting period and task completion, which was followed by vagal recovery during the post-task resting period. However, in the Future Alone group, a change from the baseline HRV was observed only at the beginning of the task, but not during its consecutive stages. Moreover, in participants who believed in the given FA feedback, the initial vagal suppression was absent. These findings provide evidence that even a brief induction of loneliness can result in a blunted vagal suppression during social information processing. It can be hypothesized that the lack of the ability to regulate vagal activity while processing social cues may potentially underlie problems with social engagement and self-control.

Keywords: Emotion regulation; Heart rate variability; Loneliness; Social information processing; Vagal regulation.

PMID: 33745964 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2021.03.002