Opposing association of situational and chronic loneliness with interpersonal distance

Nira Saporta, Dirk Scheele, Jana Lieberz, Fine Stuhr-Wulff, René Hurlemann, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Loneliness is a prevalent condition with adverse effects on physical and mental health. Evolutionary theories suggest it evolved to drive people to reconnect. However, chronic loneliness may result in a negative social bias and self-preservation behaviors, paradoxically driving individuals away from social interactions. Lonely people often feel they are not close to anyone; however, little is known about their interpersonal distance preferences. During COVID-19, many experienced situational loneliness related to actual social isolation. Therefore, there was a unique opportunity to examine both chronic and situational (COVID-19-related) loneliness. In the present study, 479 participants completed an online task that experimentally assessed interpersonal distance preferences in four conditions—passively being approached by a friend or a stranger, and actively approaching a friend or a stranger. Results show that high chronic loneliness was related to a greater preferred distance across conditions. Intriguingly, by contrast, high COVID-19-related loneliness was related to a smaller preferred distance across conditions. These findings provide further support for the evolutionary theory of loneliness: situational loneliness indeed seems to drive people towards reconnection, while chronic loneliness seems to drive people away from it. Implications for the amelioration of chronic loneliness are discussed based on these findings.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1135
JournalBrain Sciences
Issue number9
StatePublished - 27 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • COVID-19
  • Chronic loneliness
  • Interpersonal distance
  • Loneliness
  • Situational loneliness
  • Social interaction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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