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The Lonely Can't Tell Other People From Dolls

Tom Hanks in Cast Away
Tom Hanks in Cast AwayPhotograph by Mary Evans/20th FOX/Dreamworks/Ronald Grant via Everett Collection

In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks, playing a man stranded alone on the proverbial desert island, turns a volleyball into his closest friend. A new study suggests that, even under less extreme circumstances, loneliness primes us to lower the bar on who, or what, we’ll befriend.

The study, in Psychological Science, attempted to determine “how differences in our need to connect with other people could affect our perceptions of social cues,” says Katherine Powers, a psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and the lead author of the paper. Previous work has found that, like actual hunger, the hunger for social connection heightens our awareness of the things that might aid in alleviating that need. People who feel lonely are better than those who aren’t at remembering social information about others, and at discerning what other people are thinking and feeling.