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Research Roundup 14

The lonely brain's take on relationships, Why 'playing hard to get' can increase desirability, and more

“‘You are all right, you are all wrong,’ we hear the careless Sufi say,
For each believes his glimmer of light to be the gorgeous light of day.”

– from The Kasidah, by Sir Richard Burton

‘Information overload’ (otherwise known as infobesity, infoxication, information anxiety, or information explosion – take your pick from all that!) is difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions about that issue when one has too much information.

Our world is now flooded with data. We’re deluged with snippets that might be vital, but more often mean little. Our brains aren’t really set up to sift, filter, and prioritize the blizzards of info bits we struggle through.

Each day we collectively send 294 billion emails, tweet 500 million times, create 4 petabytes of data on Facebook, send 65 billion messages on WhatsApp, and make 5 billion internet searches.1 But how much wiser are we?

Of course, we’re not just sending but also receiving. We don’t have a lack of information; rather, we have so much it’s hard to collate it all. We can, of course, just tune out, switch off, and clear our heads – but many people feel they just can’t do that due to a fear of missing out or falling behind. The contents of Pandora’s box are not so easily stuffed back in.

And this pandemic of information overload may be more devastating to humanity than might be initially obvious.

Unless we cut through it and find what really matters, what we really need to know, we can be left feeling that life is overwhelmingly confusing and meaningless. Having too many choices as to what to pay attention to, what is truly substantive and what is just noise, can leave us exhausted and even damage our self-control.2

We’ve never had so much psychological information, and yet how much of it actually helps us and those we care about? And how much just bounces off the mind as we fail to sift it for relevance?

Wisdom isn’t merely about amassing information. Wisdom comes from the capacity to see the essentials of life. To exclude as well as include focuses of attention.

Wisdom isn't merely about amassing information. Wisdom comes from the capacity to see the essentials of life. To exclude as well as include focuses of attention.Click To Tweet

Learning, wisdom even, comes from a composite of the impacts of life experiences and integration of the relevance and meaning of those impacts or experiences. If we just amass data without appreciating how it all fits together, we may be even worse off than if we knew less information. Or we may simply shut down and pick an ideology and cling to it, seeing a “glimmer” and believing it to be the “gorgeous light of day.”

Anyway, in this intermittent series on recent psychological research I do my best to link scientific findings to a wider sense of what it means to be human.

Perhaps you can bring them out further into the larger light of understanding by sharing your own thoughts on their meaning and relevance. So please do comment below, as my take on these things is certainly not a complete one.

This month’s gems

This time we have:

  • what loneliness does to your brain,
  • how optimism changes across the lifespan,
  • evidence that negative thinking may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,
  • why ‘playing hard to get’ during dating can increase desirability, and
  • how the Covid-19 lockdown distorts people’s sense of time.

A particularly motley bunch of research pieces! Let’s see if we can make much sense of them in the wider context of what it means to be you and me.

Research piece one: The lonely brain’s take on relationships

It’s not just social media sites that keep track of your interactions and form them into networks – your brain does, too.

According to recent research, feeling lonely actually changes the way your brain represents relationships.3 It’s important to note here that feeling lonely is not necessarily the same as simply being alone. We can be physically close to people but still have a sense of separation.

The area of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) maps a person’s social world based on how close or distant they feel to others. People who are lonely often feel a sense of separation between themselves and other people, and this sense of separation is actually observable within the brain in the activity patterns of the mPFC.

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The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record people’s brain activity while they thought about four categories of people: themselves, close friends, acquaintances, and celebrities. It was found that reflecting on people from different categories produced different activity patterns in the mPFC. One type of brain activity was observed when participants thought about the self, another for close friends and family members, another for acquaintances, and yet another for celebrities whom the people knew of but didn’t know personally.

Thinking about closer relationships produced patterns more similar to that of thinking about the self. So feeling close to someone is a little like feeling on some level that they are you and you are them.

But for lonelier people, these observations didn’t hold true. There were bigger differences between activity when thinking about the self and when thinking about others, reflecting the sense of separation lonely individuals often feel. In addition, activity related to thinking about others was similar no matter how close the relationship. In other words, lonely people felt no closer to people they knew than to people they knew of.

My take?

We can be connected physically but not feel connected emotionally. And vice versa: We can be alone but still feel connected to others. Research has found that a profound sense of ‘oneness’ – feeling “at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other persons, or even activities” – gives people greater life satisfaction and happiness.4 Simply believing that we are all in some mysterious way connected, that our selves are in some way intertwined, makes us happier.

We evolved to relate, to form connections, and to feel a sense of we, not just I. Community and togetherness, listening and the exchange of attention are vital human nutrients. When we’re malnourished of real interconnection, we suffer accordingly.

Loneliness can drive us to some dark places. Mind you, no matter how hard things get, many of us still seem to expect things to get better.

Research piece two: Optimism lasts most of life

Research has found that from the age of 16 right through to almost 60 or 70, people tend to become more and more optimistic, though this effect does plateau in middle age.5

Researchers from Michigan State University surveyed 75,000 Americans, Germans, and Dutch between the ages of 16 and 101 to ascertain their general outlook on the future. How optimistic were people of different ages?

They found that seemingly significant events such as marriage, divorce, job or career changes, retirement, changes in health, and loss of a partner, parent, or child had little effect on people’s general levels of optimism. To quote one of the researchers: “Counterintuitively, and most surprising, we found that really hard things like deaths and divorce really didn’t change a person’s outlook to the future.”

The researchers did find a noticeable downshift in optimism as people became elderly, and surmised that this was likely due to health concerns and perhaps the fact that the majority of life was now behind the person. There was no indication of extreme pessimism in old age, merely a downtick in optimism.

Lead researcher W. J. Chopik said:

“We oftentimes think that the really sad or tragic things that happen in life completely alter us as people, but that’s not really the case. You don’t fundamentally change as a result of terrible things; people diagnosed with an illness or those who go through another crisis still felt positive about the future and what life had ahead for them on the other side.”

My take?

Life isn’t so much about what happens to us as how we respond to events and circumstances. This is why, for example, rather than trying to overly protect children from difficulties, we should encourage challenge and resilience so they can develop their ’emotional immune system’.

None of this is to say that severe trauma and deprivation has no effect on people. It certainly can affect us in terrible and sometimes toughening ways. But in general,people err towards optimism. And as we age? Well, perhaps optimism can be replaced not by pessimism but by wisdom.

Most depression lifts after a few months, sometimes much sooner, as the person surmounts difficulties or sees their worries resolve and stops ruminating so much. It’s important to understand that depression isn’t an inevitable outcome of circumstances. In fact, it doesn’t tend to be an events-driven phenomenon at all – although certain events may make it more likely for a person who is prone to depression to become depressed.

Even when a person is ‘under attack’ from conditions like depression, their emotional balancing mechanism is still working beneath the surface. Research has found that people tend to have a kind of unconscious mechanism for ‘bouncing back’ from bad events better than they might assume they would.6

This makes sense, as we are here to thrive as well as survive. Unconscious and conscious mechanisms help protect us from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”7 and adapt positively (more or less!) to the varied impacts of life so we can maintain faith that things can be better.

It clearly pays to be positive, because being negativemay wreak havoc on our neurological health as we age.

Research piece three: Persistent negative thinking patterns may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease

A new study conducted at University College London shows that persistently engaging in negative thinking may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.8 Among people over 55, a significant correlation was found between ‘repetitive negative thinking’ (RNT) and subsequent cognitive decline.

Over the four-year period of the study, those participants with higher RNT patterns showed a greater degree of cognitive decline. In particular, they were more likely to experience impaired memory, one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease. They also had a higher incidence of amyloid and tau deposits in the brain – the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

Lead researcher Dr Natalie Marchant said:

“Depression and anxiety in mid-life and old age are already known to be risk factors for dementia. Here, we found that certain thinking patterns implicated in depression and anxiety could be an underlying reason why people with those disorders are more likely to develop dementia.”

My take?

As the researchers point out, it has long been known that depression and chronic anxiety are risk factors for the onset of cognitive decline.9 And negative emotionality has also been linked to lowered immunity and therefore poorer general health.10

Depression is produced by, and in turn produces, negative thinking patterns. What underlies depression and therefore persistent negative thinking is stress. So I think the clear commonality here is the inflammatory nature of stress.

The heightened levels of stress hormone associated with depression, as well as acute and chronic anxiety, are inflammatory. And while a bit of inflammation is great for fighting off infection and so forth, too much can, it seems, really do us in.

So long-term depression and anxiety produce inflammatory responses,11 which in turn can drive diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Continuous stress can also directly shrink the hippocampal structures of the brain, which are involved with learning and recall.12

Chronic inflammation is the common disease agent here I suspect.

It’s interesting that the researchers suggest activities such as meditation and mindfulness to combat the effects of negative thinking (and I would add negative feeling) and therefore the associated inflammation. We can lower excessive inflammatory response through deep calm (all other things, such as diet, being equal).13

Psychologist Martin Seligman found that when children who were already exhibiting depressive thinking biases were taught how to combat negative thinking, many were ‘inoculated’ against later developing depression (and presumably possibly some physical diseases if the inflammation theory is correct).14

So one way of at least delaying the onset of neurological diseases may be to simply chill out more, as well as engage in other healthy behaviours.

Interestingly, while stress is primarily thought of as a bad thing, some stress and uncertainty can actually increase the value we assign to something – especially when it comes to other people. We like things more when we have to work for them, it seems.

Research piece four: Why ‘playing hard to get’ can increase desirability.

The things scientists research! Anyway, it’s all part of life I suppose, so here goes…

Researchers at the University of Rochester studied the effects of the ‘mating strategy’ of playing hard to get (PHTG) and found that this strategy creates a degree of uncertainty that does seem to increase a potential mate’s desirability.15

Gurit Birnbaum, one of the researchers, said:

“People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate. That makes them seem less valuable and appealing than those who do not make their romantic interest apparent right away.”

The research methods were pretty in depth (you can read about them here), but basically the findings were:

  • Participants who were perceived as hard to get were associated with a greater ‘mate value’.
  • Participants made greater efforts to connect with potential dates they perceived as harder to get and found them more sexually desirable.
  • Participants made greater efforts to see someone again if they’d made greater efforts to date that person in the first place.

My take?

Game playing is a no-no. Well, that’s what we all say, nodding sagely to one another. Yet people in the dating ‘game’ do employ strategies, whether that fits with our romantic ideals or not (and whether they do it consciously or not).

The researchers wisely state that the PHTG strategy can be risky. Some potential mates may be put off if you seem about as interested in them as a substance issued from the bowels of a canine found stuck to the bottom of their shoe. They may simply conclude you’re genuinely uninterested, or perhaps too capricious to make an effort with. But this research looks, as it must, at general trends.

The researchers add that showing some initial interest and following it up with limited ease of access (my own romantic words there!) may be the best way to employ this strategy in the dating game. Don’t just act like you hate someone right from the beginning, but be inconsistent with your encouragement.

This does all make sense from a wider perspective. Hard-to-getness (again, my own phrase!) makes all kinds of rewards feel more valuable. And it’s not just humans who become more hooked on inconsistent rewards.

B. F. Skinner, the father of behavioural psychology, found that animals who sometimes but not always got fed when pushing a lever were more compelled to engage in that behavior when rewards were inconsistent.16 If gamblers won every time they played, the rule of inconsistent reward would drop out and banality would replace compulsion. So too with many things.

We value the friendliness of someone who isn’t always friendly, on the rare occasion they are friendly, more than that of the person who cannot help but always be friendly. It’s not right, but it does often seem to be true. A sense of specialness and achievement come though the rarity and unpredictability of the experience.

If diamonds grew on trees, they might lose some of their perceived value.

I would suggest, if someone must play games, that playing hard to get some but not all of the time would produce a compulsive desire to get with you in many, but not all people. Of course, they would need to be attracted for other reasons too – usually, anyway!

So the psychological principles at play here are:

  • Inconsistent rewards mobilize the scarcity principle and therefore enhance the perceived value.
  • Our need for consistency makes us more likely to follow a course of action or belief if we’ve followed it in the past, and if we invested effort in it. Remember that the researchers found people were much keener to date someone again if they’d made greater efforts to date them initially. They felt more invested because of those initial efforts.

I guess the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth, and sometimes those who seem to be playing hard to get are just naturally harder work. Or keener to test potential mates.

When we understand the universal principles of value attribution (scarcity and inconsistent reward), we can understand ourselves and others better, act accordingly, and not be so easily manipulated.

Lastly, here’s a study that looks at how our sense of time passing can contract or expand depending on what’s happening.

Research piece five: Distorted time perception during the Covid-19 lockdown

A UK survey found that physical and social distancing restrictions during the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ affected people’s perception of how quickly time passed.17

Ruth Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University compiled and sent an online questionnaire with such questions as how people were feeling, how busy they were, their ‘task load’, and how quickly they felt time was passing over the course of a day, then a week. In total, 604 people responded.

It was found that over 80% of participants experienced changes to their time perception during lockdown as compared to their pre-lockdown perceptions. This effect was particularly pronounced for those who were older, less busy, more stressed, and/or less satisfied with their level of social interaction. For these people, time seemed to slow to a crawl.

It’s yet to be researched as to whether, in normal life outside lockdown, low daily task load (busyness) and dissatisfaction with social interactions affects time perception similarly.

My take?

I think this research survey backs up the old adage that ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. Maybe we should add to that adage ‘and busy and socially satisfied’!

Time can fly or drag; there’s nothing too unfamiliar about that.

And yet I’ve seen other research that seems to show that the secret to slowing down our perception of time is novelty.18 Doing new things, going to new places, and meeting new people seems to expand our sense of time.

Routine, on the other hand, can make time seem to speed up, so that days, weeks, and years seem to run into one another and generate a sense of life draining away fast.

A two-week vacation in which you do and see lots of new things can expand your perception of time so that when you return home you feel as though you’ve been gone a long time – much to the surprise of your routine-bound neighbour, who thought you’d only been gone for a couple of days!

So a full life can seem like a longer one, and yet lack of ‘task load’ – the opposite to busyness – makes time drag. There seems to be a bit of a paradox there.

I guess there are different ways to make time stretch and contract. Want to find out just how long a minute can last? Try holding the plank position for 60 seconds!

Time perception is subjective, and having a full life full of novelty and rich social connections may have the strange effect of both making time fly but also helping us feel as though we’re here on this spinning globe for longer. Time is mysterious (some even say illusory19), and so too is our perception of it.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  7. Shakespeare, W. Hamlet, 3.1.1751.
  14. See his groundbreaking book, in which much of his research is described: Seligman, M. (2011). The Optimistic Child: A Revolutionary Approach to Raising Resilient Children. Random House Australia.
  19. See Barbour, J. (2001). The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics. Oxford University Press, USA.

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