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Emotional antecedents of psychological loneliness: a review and an emerging model. Leehu Zysberg, PhD Professor, head of the research authority, Gordon College of Education Haifa, Israel.


Loneliness as a psychological phenomenon is a state of mind rather than an objective condition. Individuals may feel lonely while totally surrounded by others or may be totally fine on their own. While the consequences and risks of loneliness have been covered often in the literature, its antecedents received much less attention.

The traditional definition of psychological loneliness focuses on perception: a perceived gap between the number and quality of desired interpersonal connection and actual ones. It is quite obvious that what shapes this state of mind is more elusive, multi-layered and intangible than the actual number of people one is associated with. So what makes us feel lonely (or not)?

This chapter will review the existing literature on the antecedents of psychological loneliness with special emphasis on emotional factors. Classic and current research and theory will be described and critically discussed and an emerging model to guide future efforts in this field is presented to summarize the review.


Loneliness is often related to as ‘the plague of the 21 st century’ and is highly prevalent in western societies (Ronka et al., 2013). A surprisingly high rate of individuals report experiencing loneliness in various stages in life, and though the experience is often

transitory and time dependent numerous authors describe the experience of ‘chronic loneliness’ (Cramer & Barry, 1999). Studies of ‘trajectories of loneliness’ indicate that

the vast majority of young personsexperience loneliness for extended periods of time, supporting the chronic loneliness paradigm (Dulmen, 2013). The literature associates an ongoing experience of loneliness with a broad range of negative outcomes, from lower academic achievement in school to depression and increased mortality in older age (e.g.:

Cacioppo et al., 2002; Glaser et al., 1985; Leary, 1990). There is ample research on the nature and assessment of Loneliness (e.g.: de Jong-Gierveld, & Kamphuls, 1985;

DiTommaso, & Spinner, 1993; Russel, 1996; Russel et al., 1984), numerous outcomes of loneliness (e.g.: Cassidy & Asher, 1992; Heinrich, & Gullone, 2006) and relatively meager work on the antecedents of Loneliness, with some significant work emerging in the last decade or so (e.g.: Rokach, 1998; Rokach, 2002; Rokach & Neto, 2005). Even less is explored and known when it comes to the emotional aspects of the antecedents of loneliness.

This chapter reviews the literature defining and conceptualizing loneliness, briefly explores the literature on antecedents of loneliness in general and goes on to focus on emotional aspects underlying the experience of loneliness, proposing an analytic model to guide future research into the causes and correlates of this troubling phenomenon.

LONELINESS Definitions and conceptualization

Most individuals can understand and relate to the term ‘loneliness’ intuitively, however authors provided formal definitions of loneliness, relying on varying perspectives and theories. Peplau & Perlman (1982) provided an overview of common psychological definitions of loneliness. Despite marked differences in emphases and approach the definitions shared a common core: Loneliness can be defined as an on-going, adverse subjective experience of discrepancy between individuals’ need for socialization and attachment, and their judgment of their actual condition in these respects. All definitions agree that the experience is inherently unpleasant, adverse and at times

destructive. Most definitions point that the experience has little to do with a person’s ‘objective’ social standing or associations (Ernst & Cacioppo, 2000; Peplau & Perlman,


What does being lonely mean? Some authors believe the experience has an innate evolutionary function: From an evolutionary point of view being alone is a disadvantage, and a risk for thriving and survival, therefore we may be innately wired to feel alarmed, experience pain (if only emotional) whenever we perceive the lack of adequate social associations and support from our environment (Bowlby, 1973; Weiss, 1974).

Others maintain that loneliness has a developmental value: Interactions with others are

acknowledged as a key

factor in human

development. As such it has drawn a



attention from researchers examining the consequences of rejection, neglect, immigration and other early life experiences putting individuals at the risk of social confinement (e.g.:

Asher & Wheeler, 1985; Parker & Asher, 1993). Experiencing loneliness, though often cited as a developmental risk factor has also been mentioned as a motivational basis, a challenge that if successfully mitigated, serves future development and learning (Jung, Song and Vorderer, 2012; Moore & Schultz, 1983; Rokach & Brock, 1998).

Moreover, loneliness, as any psychological experience, is probably mainly in our head:

studies found evidence that marginalized youths, who had if only one contact they considered a friend, were already quite ‘immune’ to the adverse effects of loneliness (Cassidy & Asher, 1992; Ernst & Cacioppo, 2000). The way individuals construed, and interpreted their experiences seems to matter more in predicting adverse effects associated with loneliness than the actual social network available to them )e.g.:

Bogaerts, Vanheule, & Desmet, 2006).

The classic literature on loneliness differentiates between two types of loneliness: Weiss

(1974) defines two types of experiences under the ‘loneliness’ umbrella: 1) Emotional

loneliness is the experience of lack of intimacy and trust in others. A person may be surrounded by others yet feel they have no one to trust, confide in and share personal

experiences. (2) Social loneliness is the experience of lack of interpersonal associations, or an insufficient social network in both quantitative and qualitative terms (Russel, Catrona, Rose & Yurko, 1984). This typology evoked an impressive wave of empirical research and instrument development efforts, based on this dual-factor model.

Another model, based on empirical analyses, suggested loneliness encompasses at least 5 content-realms of perceptions and feelings relating to: 1) Emotional distress, (2) social alienation, (3) growth and discovery, (4) isolation, and (5) self-alienation (Rokach, 1997). The model highlights the multi-tiered complex nature of the experience, including both adverse and positive, growth-related components (Rokach, 2007).

The above-described models indicate the disagreement on the nature of the experience

and the subjectivity of the psychological components involved in “what it means and

what it feels like to be lonely”. The main experience acknowledged by all models is that

of a psychological challenge, and at times: crisis.

Consequences of the experience of Loneliness

Regardless of the conceptual framework taken, ample evidence suggests that when

loneliness is experienced, especially across significant periods of time, with little or no compensatory or buffering mechanisms, it might have devastating effects on the individual. The literature suggests prolonged loneliness in older age is associated with

depression, suicidal ideation, and the onset of terminal disease (e.g. Alzheimer’s, see:

Wilson, et al., 2007) (Cacioppo et al, 2002; Dill & Anderson, 1999; Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). Loneliness might be a risk factor also involved in maladaptive development of the self and its components (e.g.: self-esteem, self-efficacy and image, e.g.: Leary, 1990; Moore & Sermat, 2012). Loneliness is also associated with social and behavioral trajectories leading to socially deviant and anti-social behavior (e.g.: Martens & Palermo, 2005). Given the overwhelming evidence it is worthwhile asking: what leads to experiencing loneliness?

Antecedents of Loneliness what the literature teaches us

The study of the antecedents of loneliness is less prolific than in other aspects of the phenomenon. Studies, however, did attempt to map factors associated with loneliness and have come up with a broad range of content areas. Rokach (1997) identified 5 common causes of loneliness he named: 1) Personal inadequacies, (2) developmental challenges, (3) unfulfilling interpersonal relations, (4) relocation or social separation, and (5) social marginalization. These causes span the full range from innate, personal to financial and social factors.

Environments and settings

Exploration of the antecedents of loneliness demonstrated the role of environmental and situational factors in inducing the adverse subjective experience. Relocation or entering new social and geographical settings are probably the leading environmental causes of loneliness: from moving for college, or immigration, people who move detach from their

original social support networks, a step that may induce loneliness (Rokach, 2002; Savikko et al., 2005), living in rural areas as compared to cities and metropolises areas also associates with loneliness (in a manner somewhat contrary to common perception of cities as alienating settings, rural dwellers experience higher levels of loneliness, see Rokach, 2007; Savikko et al., 2005). Culture and politics may also play a role, with some evidence suggesting societies experiencing turmoil and change leave more room for uncertainty; the breakdown of social structured and hence put more people at risk of feeling lonely, among other things (e.g. Huntington, 2006).

Personal characteristics

Demographic characteristics also associated with varying levels of loneliness: gender (being male), older age and lower socioeconomic status were associated with increased loneliness. Age, however shows an intriguing ‘anomaly’ whereas loneliness tends to peak around adolescence and older adulthood, for different reasons (Yang & Victor, 2011). Family structure also associated with loneliness. For example, widowed participants reported feeling lonelier than people living with their families (Savikko et al, 2005).

Environment and settings seem to play a major role in triggering loneliness but given the subjective nature of the experience, the literature focused on personal attributes associated with it more than external factors. Rokach, among the more prolific authors on the subject suggested a 5-factor model to account for the subjective experience of loneliness. Out of these factors, 3 are personal in nature and include: developmental issues, social inadequacy, and inability to draw upon interpersonal relationships (e.g.:

Rokach, 1997). These factors hint at self-perception and personality as potential structures underlying these experiences. Indeed, the literature offers a lot of evidence to support the personality-loneliness association: Studies find relationships between traits under the ‘five factor model’ and Eysenck’s typology (among the most robust models of personality assessment) and aspects of loneliness, especially neuroticism and extraversion (or more accurately the lack of it) (e.g.: Saklofski et al., 1986). Current studies have linked personality traits to both the extent of the experience of loneliness and attitudes or judgments of this experience as more or less wanted, much in line with the findings reported above (e.g.: Teppers et al, 2013).

Additional evidence link predispositions and behavioral patterns which are beyond the scope of personality trait typology but associate with interpersonal tendencies to interact with others: studies have identified perspective taking, social and communication skills as well as self-disclosure attribution style and even attachment style with the tendency to feel lonely (e.g.: Bogaerts, Vanheule, & Desmet, 2006; Bruch et al., 1988).

The consistent results associating personality and loneliness almost suggest the existence

of a ‘lonely personality’ with very specific traits and predispositions, namely: tendencies

toward lesser regulation of reactions, interpersonal relationships and lower proficiency in reading and processing information about the self and others. These points lead us to examine the emotional and emotional regulatory functions and their associations with


Emotions, emotional regulation and loneliness

Is there an emotional code to loneliness? Though there is some work addressing emotional antecedents of loneliness, it is far less developed than the literature on the emotional consequences of loneliness. Here I will attempt to provide an emerging picture of emotional factors that may have a role in individuals’ likelihood of experiencing loneliness.

Delay of gratification. The most Basic function of emotional management and regulation is perhaps the one involving postponing gratification or need fulfilment (Agarwal, 2014). The most basic of emotional regulation tasks and the most difficult to manage, it is also considered by many to be the very foundation upon which interpersonal associations and relations are built in terms of effective negotiations, effective conflict management and coping with needs within a complex interpersonal setting ( Agarwal, 2014; Cacioppo et al., 2006; Dill & Anderson, 1999). Need satisfaction regulation or delay of gratification has been associated in psychological and educational research with life-long adjustment, mainly at the social and emotional levels: Mischel’s classic ‘marshmallow study’ exemplified how emotional regulation and delay of gratification serve as factors in psychological adjustment through the life cycle (Mischel et al, 2010). It is suggested that

such abilities are pivotal in developing and maintaining meaningful interpersonal relationships, thus reducing the chance of experiencing loneliness in the long run.

Emotional knowledge. The concept if often associated with two skills: 1) The naming or recognition of emotions in self and others and (2) Awareness of emotions as they are experienced by self and others (Stein & Levine, 1989). This concept represents a developmental task beginning at very early age and often associated with early experiences of deprivation and frustration (Garner & Power, 1996).

Another developmental aspect associated with this concept is that of the development of

Ego resources or perceptions associated with a sense of self: Anchored in the grand theories of such luminaries as Kohlberg, Sullivan and Erikson, the notion of ego development speaks of emerging selfhood, as a physical, perceptual, emotional and interpersonal anchor of psychological development (for a thorough review see: Hy Le & Loevinger, 2014). As individuals learn through on- going experiences since birth, both

physical and interpersonal, they define their own and others’ boundaries, set perceptual

frameworks and rudimentary perceptions that shape their world, and their relationships with themselves and others (e.g.: Allen et al, 1994). Ample evidence associate Ego development, emotional reaction patterns and relationship patterns throughout the life-

span (e.g.: Smetana et al., 2006).

Though theory associates self and emotional knowledge with the nature and quality of social associations and studies have associated emotional knowledge (or the lack of it) with increased risk of loneliness especially at childhood and adolescence (e.g.: Heintz et al, 2014), The evidence is however still preliminary and rudimentary. Future studies may further help explore the nature of emotional aspects of self-definition and self in general and their role in the experience of loneliness.

Self-knowledge, internalizing vs externalizing. A coherent self-concept as a basis for adept emotional processing and coping is an idea presented in the early days of psychological reasoning and research (Hobfoll & London, 1986). The healthy self- concept provides an infrastructure for better self-knowledge, and the ability to

differentiate between what is “me” or “mine” and “not me or mine”. Such differentiation

is taking place at multiple layers of our psyche, including perception, and emotional reactions to events (within and around us). Such structures may account for our tendency toward internalization (less expression or relief of tensions, attribution of external outcomes so characteristics of self) or externalization (more expressive style, attribution of external outcomes to others, or circumstances). These can be conceptualized as an attribution style or a personality-related pre-disposition, and are associated with loneliness in children and pre-adolescents (e.g. Heintz et al, 2014). Such patterns seem to show stability across the life-span (Fischer et al., 1984).

Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a relatively new concept addressing a century old issue the role of emotions in reasoning and problem solving. Various definitions are presented in the current literature but all share the following assumptions

on the concepts’ nature and significance in our context: 1) Emotions are a major and

basic motive in our behavior, (2) Emotions can be utilized to encode information, better read situations and effectively manage interpersonal relations, and (3) Individuals vary extensively in how effective and capable they are in these fields of intra and inter- personal function (Boyatzis, Goleman, & Rhee, 2000). Emotional intelligence has been related to as an ability, a personality trait and an eclectic collection of non-cognitive skills and tendencies (Salovey & Grewal, 2005), and despite the use of various measures, evidence did show support of the concept’s role in everyday social and interpersonal settings and challenges. For our purpose here it does seem like individuals high in EI, manage interpersonal relationships more effectively, derive more pleasure form them and report less social distress (e.g.: Petrides et al, 2006). A few studies have provided direct evidence to the role of EI in the experience of loneliness, among them Zysberg’s (2012) suggesting that EI provides a protective effect against feeling lonely, beyond what is accounted for by personal characteristics and personality traits in a sample of young adults. Austin and colleagues (2006) showed that EI is associated with a sense of social and interpersonal well-being (which can be described as the opposite of loneliness).

The above concepts and ideas may be integrated into a frame work describing an emotional DNA prone to loneliness or exactly the opposite protect individuals against feeling lonely for prolonged time spans.

Toward a model of Emotional and personal antecedents of Loneliness

The existing literature on the nature of the experience of loneliness has established its subjective nature: one can feel lonely while surrounded by others while another may not

feel lonely even when alone (Killeen, 1998). The very same body of research also emphasizes the emotional nature of loneliness: in short being lonely does not feel good and evokes a broad range of negative emotional responses (Amichai-Hamburger & Ben Arzy, 2003; Dill & Anderson, 1999; Heinrich, & Gullone, 2006). That being acknowledged, the literature has yet to offer a comprehensive model or view of emotional

characteristics that put one at a higher or lower risk level for experiencing ‘chronic loneliness’.

Based on the literature and the concepts it associates with interpersonal perceptions, and coping as well as directly with the notion of loneliness, I propose a model of emotional and social antecedents of loneliness at the personal, individual level. The model is presented in tiers: 1) A foundation level at which basic elements of emotional development and regulation set the stage for (2) Skills and predispositions that are socially and interpersonally driven, and (3) Abilities and attributes that facilitate interpretation of social and interpersonal experiences.

Perception, attribution and reaction patterns •Internalizing-externalizing. •Locus of control •Aspects of emotional intelligence: Emotional regulation in
Perception, attribution and reaction patterns
•Locus of control
•Aspects of emotional intelligence: Emotional regulation in self and others,
Integrating emotion in thought.
Emotional-Social Skills •Emotional knowledge. •Interpersonal skills: Self presentations, communication and negotiation, collaboration, etc.
Emotional-Social Skills
•Emotional knowledge.
•Interpersonal skills: Self presentations, communication and negotiation,
collaboration, etc.
Emotional infra-structure •Aspects of self development, ego development. •Delay of gratification.
Emotional infra-structure
•Aspects of self development, ego development.
•Delay of gratification.

Figure 1. A model of emotional-social antecedents of loneliness.

The model proposes a multi-tiered view of an individual’s potential for effective social interaction, not necessarily at the so-called-objective level (as in social network size or

quality) but rather in individuals’ tendency to experience distress or wellbeing around

their association with others and their social settings. At the same time it offers a

developmental perspective that may help researchers fit the model to the characteristics of the target audience across the lifespan: from early childhood to late adulthood.

As suggested above the model proposes that aspects of ego development and self-

development provide the foundation for the individuals’ ability to perceive self and

others, differentiate self from others, and experience emotion within social interaction. Concurrently, the developmentally significant ability to delay gratification is an additional axis along which the model assumes much of the potential for more or less effective management of social interactions. Based on these developmental potentials, individuals develop and hone emotional and social skills that underlie their interactions and long-term relations with others, therefore laying the so-called behavioral or

‘objective’ aspects of the risk for loneliness. Last but probably most important in our understanding of the risk of ‘feeling lonely’ is the last tier that has to do with higher level

emotional and social abilities and skills. These may account for how individuals perceive, interpret and cope with social and emotional aspects of interaction with others, therefore becoming more or less likely to experience loneliness.

While this model is not yet supported by dedicated research, the existing evidence, thoroughly reviewed here and elsewhere, do support this structure. It is presented here in hope it can lead thought, and research in this field. The model does not include personal demographics such as gender, culture and additional aspects that clearly influence and shape individuals’ social perceptions and skills, as these are viewed as laying beyond the scope of the current work. They should be, however, accounted for in future research and work.


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