Postdoctoral Fellow: Ioana Mihai

Role of loneliness and social isolation in shaping attention to the social world

Prior work has repeatedly shown that humans preferentially attend to social information. By measuring eye-movements, my PhD explored whether social interactions capture and hold human attention above and beyond the mere presence of human agents. I asked this question across development, in pre-adolescent children and young adults. This research showed that:

  • Both adults and children are similarly sensitive to the presence of a social interaction: their attention is captured and held better by interactions than other human information in scenes;
  • Children differ from adults in defining social interactions: adults are more likely to categorise ambiguous social situations as interactive, suggesting social experience contributes to social tuning across childhood.

These results suggest that observed interactions, which provide rich and unique social cues, provide valuable information for social learning, predicting social actions, and understanding other’s relationships.

During the fellowship I will therefore investigate how social experience and social wellbeing may dynamically influence these processes. Perceived loneliness and social isolation can have harmful effects on the individual, at any age. Here I ask:

  • Does loneliness or social isolation change how individuals view social information?
  • Can quantity and quality of social contact shape our ability to pick up on important social cues in complex interactions?

To answer this, I will measure how social network size and loneliness levels relate to how we attend to social information, using the experimental methods I developed throughout my PhD.

This research will lay the groundwork for future grant applications, where I hope to investigate the influence of loneliness and social isolation on older adults’ social abilities and wellbeing. I will be liaising with charities and outreach organisations that support older adults. Additionally, I will be communicating my PhD findings on the importance of social information for cognitive and social development to a variety of audiences, particularly through organizing a community science festival.

Twitter handle: @mihai_ioanaral