Why do we feel less lonely in loud environments?
New research explores how louder sounds make people feel closer and more connected to others, while quietness evokes a sense of loneliness.
People often seem to prefer a certain level of background noise, even if they don’t intend to pay attention to it. For example, listening to music while studying, or leaving the television on while doing chores, may potentially interfere with the task at hand – yet these are commonly-observed practices. Why do people sometimes have the tendency to avoid silence?
Dr Adam Wang, a social psychologist and senior lecturer at James Cook University (JCU) in Singapore, conducted a series of studies to investigate this phenomenon and how perceptions of auditory loudness relate to feelings of interpersonal closeness.
The research suggests that louder sounds make people feel physically and socially closer to others, while quieter sounds make people feel a sense of loneliness and isolation. It is believed that this is because historical experiences of physical closeness with others are usually accompanied by loudness – such as at parties, parades, and other gatherings – while experiences of isolation often occur in quieter settings, such as being alone in a quiet bedroom.
Experiences of social closeness also tend to co-occur with loudness, since people tend to be more verbal around their friends, and quieter around strangers. Over time, the repeated co-occurrences of loudness with physical and social closeness with others may have enabled mental associations to form, so that the mere exposure to loudness would induce feelings of physical and social closeness with others.
Interestingly, the opposite relationship was also investigated – not only did loudness impact feelings of interpersonal closeness, feelings of interpersonal closeness also had an effect on perceived loudness of the immediate surroundings. Specifically, participants who were asked to recall memories of social exclusion actually reported their surroundings to be quieter compared to those who were asked to reflect on a social inclusion-related memory, despite no difference in actual volume of the surroundings.
What’s more, the studies showed that after participants were made to feel socially excluded, they showed a preference for loudness in the surroundings. This finding is an interesting one as it suggests that when people feel lonely, they tend to compensate for the absence of companionship by exposing themselves to loud sounds, presumably because it provides a false sense of companionship.
Finally, the research also suggests that exposure to loudness can help protect against the negative psychological effects of social exclusion, such as feelings of loneliness and worsened mood. This is presumably because the sense of companionship provided by loudness helps to offset the psychological pain of social rejection.
Dr Wang says, “The present research findings carry important implications for everyday life. Loneliness is a pervasive phenomenon that costs the global economy billions of dollars every year. Exposure to loud volume appears to be a virtually cost-free and convenient coping strategy that may be used in settings where interpersonal companionship is deprived. Whether people are working solitary jobs, living alone, or experiencing isolation from a COVID-19 lockdown, turning on some form of sound source and cranking the volume up may serve as an antidote to loneliness.”
He adds, “These implications could also be of pertinence to settings in which people may be more prone to interpersonal isolation and feelings of loneliness, such as prisons, hospitals, retirement homes, and 14-day quarantine hotels.”
Wang, D., Ziano, I., Hagger, M. S., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2021). Loudness Perceptions Influence Feelings of Interpersonal Closeness and Protect Against Detrimental Psychological Effects of Social Exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672211015896
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