Theoretical Framework of Loneliness

By: Curtis Peterson ©


Suicide and the sacred

I have been asked a lot lately why I think a person’s social identity would reduce a person’s experience of loneliness. So I have decided instead of retyping the same thing over and over I would just provide a link to the theoretical framework of identity and loneliness that I have developed over the past few years.

Theoretical Foundation

In this section the theoretical basis for the hypothesis that saliency of social identity may reduce an individual’s current subjective experience of loneliness will be explored. Figure 1 represented the combination of four formalized theories that together explain the theoretical relationship between social identification and loneliness (figure 1. Proposed model of loneliness reduction through social identification).

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Based on the theories that will be presented after Figure 1, the theoretical model is based on the assumption that emotions occur through the cognitive appraisal of a person’s current situation, this is represented in the first three boxes of figure 1, starting from left to right. Under situation, one will note that saliency of one’s social identity is important in this model, as it will be argued that saliency of one’s identity is important in the evaluation of one’s situation and determines one’s evaluation of loneliness. Additionally, two other factors have a role in the appraisal process, (1) past emotional memories, and (2) social categorization and social identification. Both of these factors are used by the individual to determine whether the current situation is one that is potentially harmful to the individual (part emotional memories) and the importance of the saliency of the person’s social identity (social categorization and social identification). Based on these initial appraisal of the situation, emotional memories, and identity, the person will evaluate the situation as either they belong or they are lonely in the given situation.

An example of how this process may work in the real world is a student who identifies with be a college student at a given college – let us call this ABC University. In a given evaluative situation, for example, being home during the summer away from school mates and the ABC University environment. The individual may evaluate this situation as lacking in strong social connection and identity, and therefore, may evaluate their situation as lonely and experience the desire to return from summer break early, the alleviate the state of loneliness. Once the student returns to ABC University and the situation makes their identity as ABC University student salient again, and the shared bond (categorization) and similar connection (emotional belonging), the individual experiences an increase in belonging and a reduced feeling of loneliness.

The need to belong.

To understand the interplay between loneliness and social settings it important to start with a meta-theory of the need to belong (Fiske, 2013; Lieberman, 2013; Cacioppo, & Patrick, 2008). Lieberman (2013) who studies the neurological basis of social behavior and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) who studies the neurological basis of loneliness both agree that the human brain has largely evolved to meet the social demands of humans. Lieberman (2013) extends this to the notion of evolution, stating that if evolution had a purpose and a consciousness it made a bet on the social aspects of the human brain rather than the individual survival skills of the human brain to assure it continued survival. Indeed, both Lieberman (2013); and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008), provide significant evidence that the higher evolved areas of the brain are used in the processing of social information rather than non-social information. Lieberman (2013) even provides compelling evidence that when individuals stop engaging in non-social actions the brain immediately reverts to the activation of the social areas of the brain without conscious knowledge or effort. Based on this neurological evidence, it has lead these researchers to theorize that one of the most basic needs of human beings is to create and maintain social connections.

While Lieberman (2013) and Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) developed a neurological basis for social belonging, Fiske (2013) develop a social cognitive needs model which places the need for belonging as an overarching motivation to four other cognitive and affective cognitive reasons for creating and maintaining social connections. In one’s motivation to belong Fiske (2013) theorizes that there are two relatively cognitive needs and motives, and two relatively affective needs and motives. The cognitive needs include the need for understanding and the need for control. The need to understanding is the need to have shared experiences that makes both the social and non-social world predictable. The second cognitive need is the need and motivation for control as defined as being able to have some control between behavior and the outcome of behavior. Again this can arise through shared meaning, storytelling, and knowing the experiences of others. Indeed, one can argue that while there are self-enhancements that drive this proposal and dissertation, the other social meaning is to provide a shared meaning of social identification and loneliness, and to provide a potential control between one’s behavior resulting from experience of loneliness and the potential positive outcomes through engaging in the social identification process. However, if the results of this proposal are not supported it also has shared understanding and control as well. Fiske (2013) also argued that there are two relatively affective needs and motives that are driven by the belonging process. The first is the need for self-enhancement, this is the basic need to be able to see one’s self as basically worthy and improvable. It can be argued that this can only occur within a social context either through direct social feedbacks or by comparing one’s self to some social norm. The second affective need is the need for trust which is defined by Fiske (2013) as seeing others as basically benign. Lieberman (2013) argued that the reason the human brain evolved in a large part to meet their social world is because it was an evolutionary advantage for human being to live in groups and work as a coherent unit. This social system also requires seeing individuals within that social system as relatively benign and safe. Therefore, Fiske (2013) felt this was an important aspect of one of the sub-categories of the need to belong, as she argues the more benign others are within a group, the more open and creative; and less closed and apprehensive.

Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) theorize that loneliness is a mechanism by which a person comes to understand that their need to belong or social connection is not being fulfilled. This will be discussed in the next section titled “Thwarted belonging leading to loneliness”. However, to summarize this section, the need to belong is considered a basic human need and can be explained by neurological evidence (Lieberman, 2013), and social cognitive evidence (Fiske, 2013). In the overall model presented in figure one the need for belonging would be evaluated in the appraisal of the situation for which the individual is attending. This appraisal can result in a thwarting of any five of Fiske’s cognitive needs leading to the negative emotional state of loneliness.

Thwarted belonging leading to loneliness.

As will be presented on the literature review on loneliness, the study of the topic has a long and rich history. What seems to be clear from this collection of data is that loneliness is a negative emotional state that motivates an individual to fulfill their needing for social connection and belonging (Ayalon, Shiovitz-Ezra, & Roziner, 2016). There are two types of loneliness that individuals experience best explained by Weiss (1973/1985) who theorized that individuals can experience two types of loneliness one emotional and the other social. Emotional loneliness is defined as a person’s subjective evaluation that they do not have sufficient emotionally close relationships. It can be argued under Fiske (2013) model that individuals need close emotional relationships to enhance their self-enhancement through honest feedback and encouragement. One could also argue emotional relationships are necessary to have a sufficient amount of trust, in a complex social world in which not everyone can be trusted.

The second form of loneliness described by Weiss (1973/1985) is social loneliness, also known in the literature as social isolation. Social loneliness is the appraisal that one does not have sufficient social connections. Not having sufficient social connections can thwart Fiske’s (2013) need for understanding and control, by not having sufficient information through social connection to make one’s world predictable and to have some sense of control. While the majority of Cacioppo’s work on loneliness has specifically dealt with social loneliness in relation to neurological process and health and mental health outcomes, he concedes that when social-emotional needs are not met this thwarts an individual’s confidence and abilities to create and develop meaningful social connections leading to the experience of chronic loneliness (Cacioppo, Christakis, & Fowler, 2009). The clear separation for emotional loneliness and social loneliness comes from evidence that individuals may still experience loneliness despite having several social connections, and when this has been investigated the main conclusion is that for these individuals while they may have a large social network, they lack any real meaningful emotionally close relationships (Grageset, Eide, Kirkevold, & Ramhoff, 2012). While as will be indicated later in this proposal loneliness can lead to some rather anti-social and self-defeating behaviors such as isolation (Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010), drinking (Chen, & Feeley, 2015), hypervigilance and inability to trust (Lodder, Scholte, Clemens, Engels, Goosens, & Verhagen, 2015), focusing on non-social objects (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008), and becoming more non-conforming, loneliness is largely seen as a negative emotional motivational model rather than a self-defeating model. Indeed, for the majority of individuals the experience of loneliness leads to increase social and emotional connections with others, satisfying and individuals need for belonging. As can be indicated in Figure 1, emotional and social loneliness are seen as outcomes of the evaluative process after a person has determined that they are not meeting their belonging needs. Loneliness is represented in the manner to emphasize that this emotional experience then leads to proceeding behaviors such as socialization or regaining emotional connections. Before moving on to the proposed mechanisms that may reduce loneliness (social identity) it is worth pausing for a moment and taking a look at the theoretical models of emotions, as loneliness is considered as an emotional state.

Emotional basis of loneliness.

Loneliness can be considered as fitting within two groups of emotions, the first is personal emotions where one has an individual experience of loneliness which aspects of this experience of loneliness are best explained by theories of emotions presented by Cacioppo and Gardner (1999). The second is loneliness can be experienced as a social and group emotion and be driven through social and group processes which is best explained by the group based emotion theory of Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016). A full evaluation of Cacioppo and Gardner’s (1999) theory is provided in the section on loneliness while a full evaluation of Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) is provided in the section on social identity. The purpose here is to provide the theoretical underpinnings of each of these theories as they relate to the experience of emotions.

To begin the exploration of emotions it should begin with some basic ideas of emotions presented by Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) who provide evidence that the majority of research on emotions indicates that it is a situationally bound experienced based on an appraisal process of what elements of a situation are being attended to and how they are appraised based on the individual’s identity and experience with the situation. The idea and notion of emotions being situationally bound and go through an appraisal processes emphasizes a short fall in both the research on emotions and the personal experiences of emotions, in that, according to Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), emotions are well understood as they are experienced. This may explain why at times individuals may try to alleviate emotions through more destructive means rather than in a manner consistent with what the emotion means to the individual. Lastly, Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), point out that in research, that compares group emotions versus personal emotions, has largely concluded that they are not experienced qualitatively different. Meaning that emotional states as experienced by the individual versus group emotions experienced by a group, do not differ in any significant way. This according to Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren, and Gross (2016) indicates that social identity and social evaluation should be taken into consideration in the evaluation of emotional states. Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) theory and ideas of emotions are explored more deeply starting on page 106 and represented on Figure 2 on page 109. For this section on building a theoretical framework Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016) ideas can be represented in the situation, attention, and appraisal aspects of Figure 1, in that their theory supports the appraisal process of emotions based on the current situation.

The second theory of emotions used for the development of this theoretical framework come from Cacioppo and Gardner (1999). Like Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross (2016), Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) theorized that emotions, while not always rationally based have cognitive evaluative processes by which a person may determine the meaning and purpose of a given emotional state. Cacioppo and Gardner (1999) theorized that emotions have both a safety and appetitive pathway or what they called channels. The safety channel are emotions that signal either the need to gain safety or that the organism is in a safe situation. In figure 1, this is represented through the appraisal of past emotional memories, which provides information on whether the situation is safe. The appetitive channel (also called hedonic needs by Goldenberg, Halperin, Zomeren and Gross, 2016) are needs that satisfy the basic needs of the organism but also the pleasure needs of the organism. In the context of loneliness and the belonging model of Fiske (2013), safety needs (fulfilled through trust, understanding, and control) when thwarted can lead to the negative emotional state of loneliness signaling to the organism that these basic needs are not being fulfilled. Appetitive needs under Fiske (2013) may include self-enhancement needs when not being satisfied may lead to the experience of loneliness. In addition to this emphasis on cognitive process, Cacioppo and Gardner (1999), also placed emphasis on socio-emotional development as an important understanding of not only how one will experience an emotion but understand and cope with it as well. The emphasis of socio-emotional development is represented as past emotional memories in Figure 1 to emphasize that individual’s experience with emotions and their already developed personal theories about emotions has significant implications of how one will evaluate the current situation and therefore the proceeding emotional state. One question that this proposal is trying to determine, is if emotional states – such as loneliness – are situationally bound, then there must at least theoretically, be a way to change situational variables that can lead to a changing evaluation of the situation and therefore the experience of the given emotion. This proposal theorizes that a potential situational variable is the saliency of one’s social identity. The next section will provide a theoretical overview of social identity theory.

Social identity theory and social categorization theory.

This research builds on the research conducted on Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Social Categorization Theory (SCT) research findings, which was originally formulated by Tajfel and Turner in 1982. According to SIT individuals seek groups which have similar attributes that they have. This leads to group affiliation and the development of a social identity based on the qualities of that group (Turner, 1982). Once individuals start to develop a social identity in order to protect that identity he or she will categorize individuals into either in-groups or out-groups as described by SCT (Abrams, 2014). Like one’s personal identity, individuals like to think of themselves as good people, in general, therefore they will implement protective mechanisms to enhance their social identity and have their social identity protected (Carter, 2013). Accordingly, most research on SIT has focused on how individuals protect their social identity through engaging in prejudice and discrimination towards out-groups (Kumar, Seay, & Karabenick, 2011). However, recent research has focused on the positive aspects of social identity, for example Haslam (2014) provided evidence that a sense of social identity among medical doctor residency students can enhance their educational experience through developing a sense of identity as a doctor. Haslam (2014) also argues that social identity is becoming such a key variable in individual’s social and personal experiences that both mental health and physical health practitioners should not deny the importance one’s social identity has and should work to enhance their social identity for the welfare of their clients and patients.

Specific to this research, the original assumption of SIT is that individuals seek out a social identity in order to enhance their self-esteem (Turner, 1982). However, research on this self-esteem hypothesis has been inconsistent and generally does not support this view (Abrams, 2014). This has lead Abrams (2014) to believe that there are probably multiple mechanisms which motivates an individual to engage in social identification. The argument of this proposal is the experience of loneliness maybe on motivating factor for one to engage in social identification. More importantly, is that social identity maybe a protective factor in reducing not only the evaluative phase of loneliness but also the experience of loneliness. This is represented in Figure 1, part of the evaluation process, and allows the individual to interpret the situation as one in which they belong both emotionally and socially. If this assumption is correct, it will indicate that social identity does indeed have a key role in an individual’s experience of loneliness. As will be shown in later sections in this chapter social identities provide the opportunity for social belonging and the development of emotional bonds based on similar attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. This emotional bond and the feeling of social belonging may provide relief of the emotional pains of loneliness. Additionally, the saliency of which can be placed in any situation in which maybe lonely evoking for individuals, subsequently reducing the chance that individual will experience loneliness. Emphasis on the saliency of one’s social identity is important, because research on social identity finds that unless one’s identity is made salient within the situation, it has little influence affective and behavioral outcomes (Carter, 2013). With this theoretical model in mind, focus will now turn to research that is relevant to understanding loneliness and social identity both from a historical standpoint and a contemporary view.

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