- Research examined loneliness-related stigma and how it relates to age, gender, and culture.
- Women reported more self-stigma than men, meaning they were more likely to feel shame when they felt lonely.
- Younger people, compared to older, were more likely to feel that loneliness can be controlled.
- Older individuals were more likely to assume loneliness is due to internal causes (e.g., personality).
The focus of today’s post is a recent paper by Barreto et al., published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, which examines social stigma and self-stigma (e.g., feelings of shame) associated with loneliness.
Before discussing the findings, we need to clarify the meaning of a few terms.
Loneliness vs. singlehood
Loneliness refers to the experience of anxiety, depression, and other unpleasant emotions that occur when someone believes they lack satisfying social or intimate relationships (e.g., friends, romantic partners, etc.). As explained elsewhere, loneliness has social and emotional dimensions.
Singlehood is different. Being single does not necessarily result in feelings of loneliness. Research shows that voluntarily single people tend to be happier and less likely to experience loneliness than the involuntarily single (e.g., divorced, widowed).
The stigma of loneliness
Loneliness stigma refers to shared, negative beliefs and attitudes that devalue feelings of loneliness and belittle those who experience loneliness. For instance, the assumption that a lonely person is probably someone unlikable, unfriendly, socially inept, or incompetent.
Causal attributions for loneliness refer to beliefs about the causes of loneliness.
Here are four types of causal attributions (with examples in parentheses) that explain why P, a hypothetical person, is lonely:
- Internal and stable (P has a shy temperament and fears rejection, so they have always felt alone)
- Internal and unstable (P does not make enough effort these days to make friends)
- External and stable (Others have never been interested in meeting people such as P)
- External and unstable (Currently, there are an insufficient number of opportunities for P to meet new people)
In general, internal causal attributions (e.g., introversion, neuroticism) are weaker predictors of loneliness than external causal attributions (e.g., caring for an ill parent, divorce, bullying victimization, being discriminated against).
Internal attributions for loneliness are more stigmatizing as well because they ignore the many environmental and sociocultural factors that contribute to loneliness; simply put, they suggest loneliness is a person’s own fault.
Similarly, those who believe feeling lonely is something they should be able to control are more likely to experience guilt or shame; as a result, these individuals try to conceal how lonely they really feel.
Investigating stigma-related perceptions of loneliness
The investigation by Barreto and colleagues examined how stigma-related perceptions are shaped by age, gender, culture, and other factors.
The data came from an online survey on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service.
Sample: 45,548 participants (mostly from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the UK); 68 percent women; average age of 50 years old (age range of 16 to 101 years); 76 percent exclusively heterosexual and 4 percent exclusively homosexual; 42 percent living alone; 28 percent single and 31 percent married.
Dependent measures used are listed below (sample items in parentheses).
- Own loneliness: This was measured using items from the UCLA loneliness scale (“Do you feel isolated from others?”).
- Impressions of individuals who feel lonely: Participants were instructed to imagine a lonely person and write down their perception of this person for each of 21 traits on a scale—from positive to negative, such as from “relaxed” to “nervous.”
- Causal attributions for loneliness: One measure assessed attributions for a hypothetical person’s loneliness; another assessed perceived controllability of own and other people’s loneliness.
- Perceived stigma in the community: This was based on the measure of Collective Self-Esteem (“In general, people in the community where I live tend to think that being lonely is a sign of weakness”).
- Shame surrounding loneliness: Three items were used (“When I feel lonely, I feel ashamed about it”).
- Concealing loneliness: A single item asked whether participants would reveal their feelings of loneliness to a coworker.
Determinants of the stigma of loneliness
Analysis of data showed people’s own loneliness was “significantly related to all stigma indicators except for impressions of people feeling lonely.”
Specifically, feeling lonelier was associated with
- Making more internal attributions for loneliness
- Believing loneliness was not controllable
- Believing loneliness was stigmatized in the community
- Experiencing great shame
- Concealing feelings of loneliness
In terms of gender differences, more men than women perceived loneliness as something controllable and assumed a “stigma around loneliness in their community.” This suggests that “loneliness is more stigmatized by men than by women, but also that men are more exposed to this type of stigma than women.”
Compared to men, women were more likely to experience shame when feeling lonely.
As for the effects of age, younger individuals perceived loneliness as more controllable.
Older people made more internal attributions for loneliness than external ones. This makes intuitive sense because loneliness in old age has a stronger relation to uncontrollable and internal causes (e.g., health issues and widowhood).
Data also showed younger people felt there was more stigma in their community, felt more ashamed of being alone, and showed a greater tendency to want to hide their loneliness.
Finally, there were country-level differences: Internal causal attributions for loneliness were seen more frequently in those from individualistic countries than from collectivist countries.
Loneliness is associated with stigma, which tends to be stronger among
- Young people: The stronger stigma is likely due to socialization being developmentally important during young adulthood, also due to the (wrong) assumption that loneliness is less prevalent among young people and hence less normal.
- Men: This makes sense since this stigma probably functions to discourage emotionality and expression of lonely feelings, which may be considered feminine. So, the reason women, rather than men, reported more self-stigma is either because they were more ashamed of feeling lonely or because they have been socialized to experience and express greater shame.
- People from collectivist societies: This could be due to the value these societies put on strong social networks and harmony.
Because some degree of stigma-related perceptions were present in all groups—men and women, young and old, and people of different countries—future research should focus less on identifying stigmatizers and more on how stigmatization occurs and the best way to prevent it.