Behavioral and Neural Dissociation of Social Anxiety and Loneliness

Jana Lieberz, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Nira Saporta, Alisa Kanterman, Jessica Gorni, Timo Esser, Ekaterina Kuskova, Johannes Schultz, René Hurlemann, Dirk Scheele

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Loneliness is a public health concern with detrimental effects on physical and mental well-being. Given phenotypical overlaps between loneliness and social anxiety (SA), cognitive-behavioral interventions targeting SA might be adopted to reduce loneliness. However, whether SA and loneliness share the same underlying neurocognitive mechanisms is still an elusive question. The current study aimed at investigating to what extent known behavioral and neural correlates of social avoidance in SA are evident in loneliness. We used a prestratified approach involving 42 (21 females) participants with high loneliness (HL) and 40 (20 females) participants with low loneliness (LL) scores. During fMRI, participants completed a social gambling task to measure the subjective value of engaging in social situations and responses to social feedback. Univariate and multivariate analyses of behavioral and neural data replicated known task effects. However, although HL participants showed increased SA, loneliness was associated with a response pattern clearly distinct from SA. Specifically, contrary to expectations based on SA differences, Bayesian analyses revealed moderate evidence for equal subjective values of engaging in social situations and comparable amygdala responses to social decision-making and striatal responses to positive social feedback in both groups. Moreover, while explorative analyses revealed reduced pleasantness ratings, increased striatal activity, and decreased striatal-hippocampal connectivity in response to negative computer feedback in HL participants, these effects were diminished for negative social feedback. Our findings suggest that, unlike SA, loneliness is not associated with withdrawal from social interactions. Thus, established interventions for SA should be adjusted when targeting loneliness. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Loneliness can cause serious health problems. Adapting well-established cognitive-behavioral therapies targeting social anxiety might be promising to reduce chronic loneliness given a close link between both constructs. However, a better understanding of behavioral and neurobiological factors associated with loneliness is needed to identify which specific mechanisms of social anxiety are shared by lonely individuals. We found that lonely individuals show a consistently distinct pattern of behavioral and neural responsiveness to social decision-making and social feedback compared with previous findings for social anxiety. Our results indicate that loneliness is associated with a biased emotional reactivity to negative events rather than social avoidance. Our findings thus emphasize the distinctiveness of loneliness from social anxiety and the need for adjusted psychotherapeutic protocols.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2570-2583
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number12
StatePublished - 23 Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

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  • Anxiety/psychology
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Loneliness/psychology
  • Male
  • Social Behavior


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