The Lived Experience of Loneliness Among Single Men Who Use Dating Apps

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The Lived Experience of Loneliness Among Single Men Who Use Dating Apps:

A Qualitative Analysis through the Lens of Attachment

Introduction

Loneliness is a growing problem in today’s society. As we are becoming less and less dependent on others for our basic needs, we can afford to live alone. We can get all the information and entertainment we want without leaving our homes. For many people these developments lead to a lonely existence. With social media and the Internet consuming our daily lives, face-to-face contact is less frequent. For example, we often text one another instead of picking up the phone to say hello. We are losing our social skills and may become less comfortable interacting with others. Interactions among individuals from different backgrounds (e.g., race, socioeconomic status, education level, political affiliation, etc.) are even more limited.

Technology permits us to create our own microenvironment with fewer problems and conflicts with others. But the price of this of convenience is a greater interpersonal isolation. Men tend to be more emotionally remote with difficulty expressing themselves and therefore more likely to be lonely compared to women, as described in the book Iron John:  A Book about Men by Robert Bly (1990). Support groups, social media and also research studies seek to address the nature and causes of loneliness experienced by men. So severe is this public health problem, the National Health Service in the United Kingdom has instituted a “Campaign to End Loneliness” (Matthews et al, 2016).

Of the many possible areas, causes, and phenomena that may characterize the lived experience of loneliness, this investigation will focus on loneliness in a sample of young men. The epidemic of loneliness in this population has not received significant attention in the scholarly literature. The literature and research usually deal with older adults because loneliness is thought to be much more common; it is also complicated by medical issues, loss, poverty, and aging in general (Pinquart and Sorensen, 2001; Fees, Martin & Poon, 1999; Cattan et al., 2005). The studies of younger samples are mostly quantitative, and focus on loneliness in the context of psychopathology, mostly as a feature of depression (Morrison and Gore, 2010).

Quantitative researchers typically conceive of a hypothesis or a set of hypotheses, choose a measure that characterizes various aspects of loneliness, and attempt to find group differences for the purpose of hypothesis testing (Akbag and Imamoglu, 2010). Other studies use questionnaires to discover which items may be associated with loneliness (Odaci and Kalkan, 2010). In these studies, however, the researchers fail to explicate exactly what the “lived experience” of loneliness actually is. Is it merely a problem in individuals with mental health problems like depression or anxiety? Is it a cause or consequence of mental health problems? Is it a necessary feature in depression or anxiety or there are factors that cause these individuals experience loneliness? Moreover, how is loneliness differentially experienced by different groups of people?

Since quantitative studies of loneliness do not attempt to understand the lived experience of loneliness, questions such as “What does loneliness feel like in day-to-day life?” and “How does the experience of loneliness differ between men and women?” are not even asked. We have a lot of ideas and theories about the experience of loneliness (Black, 1994), but minimal qualitative data to address the lived experience of loneliness.

For instance, many practitioners uphold the significance of attachment theory (Bowlby, 1988) and apply it in clinical practice (Slade, 1999). Yet there is very little applied social science that addresses the phenomenology of loneliness. According to attachment theory, early development will have a major effect on the individual’s later experience in life as far as their relationships are concerned; individuals with secure attachment early in life will have better and more mature relationships than individuals who had a history of insecure attachment (Bowlby, 1998). Even though there are studies that question the utility and consistency of the theory (Lee, 2003), many clinicians practice based on this theory (Cassidy, 1999).

In contemporary clinical work, practitioners often attempt to understand the client’s social life and his/her connections with others through the lens of attachment theory. Qualitative analyses of loneliness could meaningfully inform an attachment-based approach to clinical work by illustrating for clinicians the actual lived experience of loneliness, giving them an accurate picture and rich description. Loneliness surely has a different subjective sense for each and every individual. Describing, documenting that information and analyzing it systematically can best be obtained from detailed qualitative interviews and summarizing them in case studies. Careful listening and examination of the individual’s lived experience should be done while setting aside biases and previous knowledge by the interviewer, in this case, his/her own experience with loneliness to insure that rich subjective voices are heard regarding the experience of loneliness.

As already asserted, the literature on loneliness mostly consists of quantitative studies comparing different groups on measures of loneliness (Akbag and Imamoglu, 2010) or studies of loneliness as a feature or symptom of various psychopathologies, such as depression (Morrison and Gore, 2010); however, there is a paucity of qualitative research investigating the lived experience of loneliness of young people, and more specifically, there does not appear to be any qualitative study on the lived experience of loneliness investigated exclusively among young adult, gay or heterosexually identified single men.

Young gay men may be at a higher risk for loneliness because of cultural and societal rejection of their sexual orientation and due to difficulties around “coming out” (Miller, 1995). It is fairly recent that gay sexuality is recognized as falling within the range of human sexual expression and the “gay-identified lifestyle,” even if frequently mischaracterized and misunderstood by society, is becoming more accepted. Young gay men still experience tremendous prejudice and still feel excluded in many ways. The only way their experience can be understood first-hand is by an open-ended qualitative approach; by asking questions and listening rather than making suggestions and trying to guide the answers according to the interviewer’s biases and prejudices.  As far as heterosexually identified young men are concerned, loneliness may present a challenge too. In regards to heterosexually identified men based on a study conducted by Rokach (1999), they tend to rely on distancing and denial as a way of coping with loneliness. Men tend to cope with loneliness through work and increased activity as a way of distracting themselves from their feelings.

Research Questions

This study aims to understand how gay and heterosexually identified men, between the ages of 20 and 30, who are single but dating — and who use dating apps to meet potential partners — experience the many dimensions of loneliness utilizing interview data from face-to-face qualitative inquiry. Guiding research domains of interest will include attachment experiences, how and in what contexts they experience loneliness, their experience as “single,” what triggers of loneliness they identify, when they become aware of loneliness, what their loneliness feels like, and how they cope with and respond to their loneliness.

The qualitative interviews will also focus on soliciting participants’ dating experiences including how they use dating apps in the pursuit of a partner, how they present themselves in dating app profiles, what their specific goals are in the use of apps, and what emotions and thoughts they experience in response to their use of apps. Rich textual description from qualitative interviews will be examined for the presence of meaningful themes as self-described in the lived experience of loneliness.

I will start the interview by introducing the topic in a warm and open manner; telling each participant that we will be talking about dating relationships, their use of dating apps, and their emotional experiences. I will specifically ask about emotions that are associated with dating. At some point in our discussion, I will ask them to tell me about their experience with loneliness, which should come up naturally through the conversation. After this open ended part of the interview, if I could not get the information I was looking for, I will ask more direct but still open ended questions (minimizing ambiguity and building rapport with participants). These questions should further prompt and facilitate the discussion on loneliness:

  • Let’s talk about the apps you use and the purpose they serve?
  • Tell me about some of the apps that you use. How often do you switch back and forth? Tell me about your process of switching back and forth. What are your goals? (connect, sex, relationships, distraction, fun etc…)
  • How much time do you spend on it? What do you think about the time you spend using these apps?
  • How does it interfere with your life, school, work, other relationships?
  • Tell me about your hopes when using the apps? Tell me about feelings of frustration or your positive feelings when using the apps?
  • What times of the day do you use the apps the most and why?
  • Tell me about the way you handle the process (like how long before you want to meet, speak? How long do you typically communicate online with someone before meeting them? Tell me about your feelings while setting up a date and when you are on your way there.
  • How are you feeling when you are using these apps? (Feeling up or down?)
  • Tell me about the substances you use while using a dating app?
  • What other social media accounts do you find the person on before you meet them? At what point do you look them up?
  • How much of your experiences do you share with others? If so, who do you share with? What emotions do you feel while sharing those experiences?
  • What do you post about your dating on Facebook? What do you think about honesty on dating profiles? What do you omit from your dating profile?
  • How important is honesty on these apps?

The utilization of these questions will be dependent largely on how verbal participants are. If the participants come in ready to fully disclose their feelings, emotions and behaviors on loneliness, then I plan to just follow their lead and ask follow up questions. If they seem comfortable, I may opt to ask questions such as:

  • Tell me about when all of these feelings of loneliness started.
  • Tell me about a specific event or events associated with these feelings of loneliness.
  • How would you describe these feelings of loneliness?
  • I’d like to ask you about some of your most satisfying relationships.
  • Tell me about the relationships that have been most meaningful to you in your life.
  • Would you mind drawing a map for me of your most important relationships during different parts of your life using circles.

 Research Methods and Data Analysis

Recruiting research participants will be accomplished through maximum variation sampling, a kind of purposeful sampling aimed at soliciting participants – both gay and heterosexually identified – who have a high degree of heterogeneity in their lived experience of loneliness, dating, and attachments.  The aim is not to obtain a representative sample; it is not a goal in qualitative social science.

My recruitment methods will include posting ads, soliciting participants on Craigslist as well as posting flyers on the community bulletin boards of supermarkets and cafes. I will also post advertisements for research participation on the websites meetup.com and on findparticipants.com.

Before meeting participants for face-to-face qualitative interviews, I will contact interested participants by telephone or email to complete an initial screening to make sure they meet certain inclusion criteria. As already mentioned, my method of recruitment will be “purposeful sampling” (Suri, 2011) in order to find men who are most likely to fit the minimal criteria for inclusion in the study; they should be proficient in English, high-school graduates who confirm that they are presently single but dating, and willing to answer questions in a face-to-face interview for a minimum of one hour. They have to agree to have the interviews audio-recorded to permit subsequent transcription. They must have a history of having been in a romantic relationship, and they must be actively pursuing relationships using mainstream popular dating apps (e.g., e.g., Tinder, Match, OK Cupid) but not be engaged in a committed relationship.

After the phone screen, I will interview 10 eligible participants, 5 gay-identified and 5 heterosexually identified men, each for one to two hours. According to the “rule of thumb” 15 to 20 hours of data should be enough to get meaningful information from interview data (Natasi, 1998).

With their permission, I review their dating profile and other social media presence like Facebook (I may be able to come up with other source material like my direct observation of their use of the dating app). I will interview them at least once, possibly twice if feasible. I will ask them to collect their experience in a journal (I will provide a format and items for the journal and modify as I have more experience). Dating apps can serve many different purpose in their lives. Trying to understand their perspective is important and I have to be open and not judgmental. I will look for common themes that will give me ideas for the next step (also see Methods for finding themes).

I will try to identify some pattern or theme and may find an explanation of how their use of dating apps may contribute to or counter their loneliness. I will try to find a connection with their individual history as well. I will look for narrative data analogies and metaphors. It will also be important to identify omissions. I will try to be aware of omitted data that participants either hide or opt not to discuss.

In analyzing the cases, I will have to focus on specific aspects relevant to loneliness rather than doing a “Holistic Analysis”. Within-case as well as cross-case analysis will be conducted. In the last part of my case study, I will interpret and find a meaning of the case or my “assertions”.

As I refine my proposal, I may be able to address another area that interests me: attachment theory. Even though I will take an atheoretical approach, I may be able integrate questions about upbringing and attachment to various caregivers. This will be a delicate thing because asking these questions may suggest a bias toward the significance of parenting, what it means to grow up in various families and circumstances and this may have nothing to do with the individual’s own experience and the connection with how the individual understands or describes loneliness.

The first step will be transcribing the interviews. As I transcribe I will underline important parts of the interview. Instead of verbatim transcription, I will be able to simplify the text but make sure that I will not leave out anything that could be relevant. I will have to pay attention not just to what the participant says but also how it said; the tone of voice, the emotion etc. I also have to remember my own observation during the interview of how the participant behaved, gestures, body language and maybe my own reactions to what the participant said. I will be transcribing the interviews as I go along and discuss them in supervision so that I can modify the interview and also get more experienced in picking out the main themes after each interview.

Multiple case study would be an ideal fit for this study on loneliness. The purpose of conducting multiple case study (instrumental) is to understand a specific, issue, problem or concern such as loneliness. The cases are selected to get an in depth understanding of loneliness. (Creswell, 2013). Finding themes is difficult. According to Ryan and Bernard (2003) the best way to find themes is to ask “What is this expression the example of?” They state that themes can come in all kinds of shapes and forms and can be very unique. It can come from the actual data (the content of the interview) or the interviewer’s own ideas from previous experience or some accepted category in the literature. First one has to be very open and come up with many themes but later some will more sense than others. They talk about “lumpers” who are putting themes in a larger category and “splitters” who will break up the categories to be more open to the many possibilities. I think one has to be somewhere in the middle, not to get lost in finding too many themes that may not be all that meaningful, but not too general and miss something unusual. Ryan and Bernard (2003) describe many tools to analyze the data and state that one has to select the best tool for the type of qualitative research. Multiple case studies and detailed interviews will allow me to use most of the tools they describe.

Some of the specific methods for analysis that I will include are Repetition, Metaphors and Missing Data. Repetition is a way of identifying themes based on how often they occur. It is likely that many participants will end up identifying similar or identical topics throughout the interviews across participants. This can prove to be helpful in identifying themes relevant to the topic of loneliness throughout interviews and across participants. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) found that individuals often represent thoughts, behaviors and experiences using analogies and metaphors. Since, loneliness is a universally understood concept by many, it is likely that certain members will speak in metaphors in order to explain their experiences. It could prove to be very useful analyze themes based upon these metaphors or analogies. Missing data is a scrutiny based approach where we intentionally question what is missing or omitted from the interview with the participant. This requires a certain hypervigilance by the principle investigator to become alert to either topics that are intentionally or unintentionally avoided and identify them as themes (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975).

Going over the transcripts, I will try to find unusual terms that might stand out. Participants might use expressions, metaphors, language, words that will differentiate between the participants but they may also differentiate between groups. I will try finding “Key Words in Context; KWIC” and co-occurrence of words. I will also use computer programs that can identify words that are most frequent but also meaningful. I can also use programs to search the transcript for words and expressions. I will pay attention to transitions or when the participant suddenly changes the topic or skips something that should be very meaningful. It will be difficult to decide if I should ask about these omissions because it may suggest my bias; that I think the omission is important or problematic. After a while I will get better at finding repetitions and decide if the repletion is important and informative.

After the open ended questions, I will also ask about attachment if it didn’t come up before. This part of the interview will be somewhat theory based (attachment theory) and I will have to be careful not to influence the participant. They should feel free to express their own feelings about their history of upbringing and if they think that their upbringing had anything to do with their current experience using the dating apps and the way they are dating or their own sexuality.

Assumptions and Limitations:

The purpose of this multiple case study will be to understand the lived experience of loneliness among gay and heterosexual identified men in romantic relationships. This study will be conducted in an age where technology and social media play a large role in how we meet and get to know prospective romantic partners. Some of the questions in this study will elicit an understanding of how social media has affected romantic relationships. Based on some of the literature, the Internet and social media have been shown to increase feelings of depression and loneliness (Kraut et al., 1998). Another assumption that must be considered is the role that age plays on loneliness. The elderly tends experience difficulties with loneliness due to retirement, limited mobility, illness and loss of friends and family. As attachments decrease, levels of loneliness tend to increase (Schnittker, 2007). Assumptions will also be based on the impact of culture on loneliness. In a study conducted by Rokach (1999), varying cultures seem to impact distancing, denial, religion and faith. The men from America tended to rely on distancing and denial more often than men from other countries. Religion and faith are common methods of coping with loneliness in countries South Asia and the West Indies. Overall, regardless of cultural background, men tend to cope with loneliness through work and increased activity as a way of distracting themselves from these feelings.

Some other assumptions include the lived experience of loneliness will vary more from person to person between two groups of gay and heterosexually identified men; there will be themes that characterize the experience of young men independent of their sexuality; there will be some correlation or connection between attachment style and the way participants describe their experience with loneliness; the lived experience of loneliness will not be always associated with depression, anxiety, avoidance; young men will have a wide range of experience with loneliness from not problematic, episodic to disabling, constant; 20 year olds will have a different experience with loneliness than 30 year olds. Lastly, dating apps will be used independent of loneliness; some will feel that dating apps help and others feel that dating apps reinforce loneliness. Ultimately, there is a possibility that use of dating apps may not have a predictable connection to loneliness.

Limitations of the study will include the narrow range of the sample with regard to age, sexual orientation, and gender. Later on if the methods are successful, the sample can be extended to other groups (women, minorities, non-English speaking populations etc). It may not provide any generalizable information.

Anticipated Ethical Issues:

There are many ethical issues I need to deal with. They will relate to protecting the participant, risks and benefits, confidentiality, privacy, informed consent, using the interview and handling the data. In general, I am going to follow the Code of Ethics for psychologists, but I will have to focus on specific problems that may come up when one is doing qualitative research. I will not begin the study until I receive IRB approval.

I will be doing an initial phone screen and I will describe the study and answer questions. If they seem appropriate to be interviewed, I will schedule a convenient time (I will be doing the interview in the private office of my supervisor). Before I begin I will ask them to read the consent form. The consent form (will be approved by the IRB) will explain the study in details. It will explain that all information will be confidential and that their privacy will be protected and that the study is voluntary. They have to agree to the taping but they can stop the tape any time and sections or the entire tape can be erased. The tapes are transcribed and I and my supervisors are the only people who will have access to them. We will keep the tapes and the transcription for up to 5 years and then discarded. The tapes and all data will be kept in a secure location, everything on the computer will be encrypted and protected by passwords.

There will be no identifying information (according to HIPAA), we are going to use codes and not names. If we are publishing anything, all personal information will be disguised; the identity of the participant will not be recognizable. They will not benefit from the research but it is possible that they learn about themselves. If I cannot recruit the participants, I may have to advertise and may have to pay them for their time. If I make any changes in the study I will get IRB approval first.

It is also possible that the topics can be upsetting which is a risk. This is sort of a problem because they know that I am also a clinician but I am not really doing a clinical interview. I will have ongoing supervision and these problems will be discussed. In qualitative studies it is difficult to anticipate what can come up and I will have to be very flexible. In supervision we will discuss the appropriate ways to handle these problems on a case by case basis. I may have to refer the participant for treatment. I will do the interviews in a respectful and empathetic way and cannot be judgmental. I will work with the Committee and address all ethical problems that may come up. Lastly, another possible limitation is that these qualitative interviews may not yield any relevant results at the conclusion of the study.

Review of Literature

The psychology discipline has long recognized that loneliness is a pervasive problem among the elderly, leading to obesity, poor health outcomes, and premature death (Cacioppo, 2014).   Along with these findings, others have come to appreciate that loneliness presents a significant individual and public health condition for those in the prime of life, leading some to describe a “loneliness epidemic.”

For instance, Cicioppo and Patrick (2008) describe a risk for vulnerability to social disconnection—a genetic need for social connection— that may contribute to loneliness.  Also, an individual’s ability to self-regulate internal feelings of isolation will have a major affect on his overall sense of well-being.  One’s judgment of the behavior of others can also lead to the self-assessment of loneliness.  Various other situations play a role in the level and experience of loneliness like moving to a new city, divorce and the ending of relationships with friends, relatives, sexual partner etc.

The public health significance of loneliness is that it could lead to depression and suicide, increased stress levels, medical problems, poor decision-making and antisocial behavior, substance abuse, altered brain functions etc.

Loneliness is characterized by unpleasant and distressing subjective experiences that arise from deficiencies in an individual’s relationships. It varies highly in type and intensity and there is a wide the range in duration of time periods when the person experiences the discomfort associated with loneliness. Loneliness often results in reduced life satisfaction, decreased academic, work and social performance and persistent psychological distress (Bernardon et al., 2011). Despite the basic human need to belong, loneliness is very common in the general population. In addition to a range of psychological issues, it can also be due to many other factors (cultural, financial, gender related, geographical, psychological, medical disability, age etc).

According to Oshagen and Allen (1992) the prevalence of loneliness in the general population ranges from 15 to 28%. The most accepted theory that tries to explain the psychological roots of loneliness is attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment theory states that various attachment styles develop from infancy to adolescence and is usually explained by the kind of parenting the individual receives early in life.

Attachment

In this review attachment theory will be used as a framework to understand loneliness and the difficulties it leads to in romantic relationships. John Bowlby, considered the father of attachment theory, developed an evolutionary theory of attachment. It hypothesizes that children are born with an innate capacity to attach to others. This pre-programmed capacity assures that mother and infant have a biological need to stay in contact with each other and that disrupting this process can have severe consequences for survival as well as development (Bowlby, 1969,1988).

Ainsworth’s (1969), Beebe et al., (2013) and Fonagy et al., (2003) studied the human connection using infant-parent observational studies. Their work firmly established that the perceived security, attunement and responsiveness during early life will lead to developing either secure or insecure attachment and that these attachment styles are significantly related to our capacity to form relationships throughout life.  Securely attached infants tend to have at least one primary attachment figure who is physically, psychologically and emotionally available. Insecurely attached infants have at least one primary attachment figure who is insensitive, dismissive or suffers from mental disorders, most commonly from depression.  These insecurely attached children cannot depend on primary attachment figures for stimulation and soothing and adapt to this neglect by self-soothing. Some will develop a “do it yourself” attitude and become self-dependent, others become fearful, anxious and dependent.

Lewis et al., (2007) in their book, The General theory Of Love, provide an alternative, neurobiological, basis for understanding attachment theory.  They hypothesize that limbic resonance is the neurobiological basis of attachment.  The mammalian limbic system is considered the “emotional brain”. It is uniquely developed to be the structure attuned to sense the internal states and motives of other mammals (similar to that of the mentalization theory of the mind).  It is limbic resonance that makes looking in the face of another emotionally responsive creature a multilayered experience.  We become attuned to each other’s internal states and develop the capacity for mutual exchange and adaptation.

Bartholomew & Horowitz (1991) and Brennan, Clark, & Shaver (1998) describe two forms of insecure attachment: anxious attachment style (e.g. fear of rejection/abandonment) and avoidant style (e.g. avoiding intimacy or interdependence). They suggest a  strong correlations between insecure attachment and loneliness. Accordingly, individuals with avoidant attachment may be independent both psychologically and emotionally. They also tend to disregard the importance of close and/or intimate relationships and tend to feel lonely due to this deficit. The anxious insecure individuals have a fear of rejection and abandonment. They feel needy for attention and want others around constantly. They want to please but feel deficient in many ways. The negative evaluation of the self often leads them to feelings of loneliness (Pereira et al., 2013).

Securely attached individuals tend to show greater satisfaction in their romantic relationships. A securely attached adult offers love, care, support, and an ability to sustain satisfactory relationships (Cann et al., 2008). Satisfaction is an important component in romantic relationships. Insecurely attached individuals have significantly lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Dissatisfaction with a relationship increases feelings of loneliness (Pereira et al., 2013). Infidelity is one of the most troubling aspects in relationship satisfaction. Loneliness with avoidant style is associated with infidelity, anxious style leads to fear of abandonment and less infidelity. Infidelity is a way of satisfying both intimate and autonomous needs for individuals with avoidant style (Brown, 1991).

Schacner and Shaver (2002) found that anxiously attached people are open to being poached by someone else. Mate poaching is a fear that someone will steal their partner or have them lured away from them (Schmitt and Buss, 2001). According to Tracy and colleagues (2003), avoidant attachment ‘‘interferes with intimate, relaxed sexuality because sex inherently calls for physical closeness and psychological intimacy, a major source of discomfort for avoidant individuals’’ (p. 141). Many avoidant individuals have difficulty with the intimacy and affection and they are the main components of sexuality. They tend to have a more open attitude and get involved in casual sex and have more one-night stands. Avoidantly attached individuals are typically independent and self-reliant and commonly distant and less emotional or display less emotion. Schachner, Shaver and Gillath (2008) find that these individuals have more than one sexual partner at a time and that they tend to suppress love, their need for closeness, intimacy and commitment.

Another relevant factor that is assessed in the loneliness literature is self-disclosure. Levi-Belz, Gvion, Horesh and Apter (2013) examined the interpersonal difficulties operationalized as self-disclosure and loneliness. The results of their study were quite striking. They found that individuals with attachment patterns specifically relating to interpersonal difficulties have a higher risk for suicide; that includes suicidal ideation, suicidal plans, attempts and also completed suicide. There are many examples of these interpersonal difficulties. For instance, widowed or unmarried individuals have higher suicide rates than married or committed individuals. This works for employment as well; those that are employed and part of a working community have lower suicide rates than unemployed individuals (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).

Some more recent studies have looked at aspects of social self-efficacy and self-disclosure. Social self-efficacy is about the individuals perceived ability to initiate and maintain social friendships. Self-disclosure refers to the individual’s verbal communication of verbally relevant information of their thoughts and feelings and expects the availability and responsiveness of others. This can impact their perceived ability to initiate social interactions. Several studies have found that attachment security is closely related to these factors.

These are some of the many factors to study as they relate to attachment. They are especially relevant and informative during crucial developmental transitions such as the transition from high school to the first year of college. Wei, Russell, and Zakalik (2005) looked at social self-efficacy and self-disclosure as a mediator between attachment, loneliness and depression in college freshmen. More specifically, they also used the two-style model and compared attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety. The study found that the relationship between attachment avoidance and depression was completely mediated by comfort with self-disclosure; if students can feel more comfortable revealing their emotions and distress, then their level of depression could decrease. Limited social self-efficacy was found to be a strong risk factor for depression among individuals with high attachment anxiety. This difference was found to be statistically significant.

Self-disclosure has been shown by various scholars to be significant on its impact on loneliness; low self-disclosure will likely lead to higher levels of loneliness. Another specific variable that should be assessed is self-silencing behavior and how it impacts on loneliness. Besser, Flett and Davis (2003) explored the relational components of self-criticism and dependency by examining individual differences in silencing the self and loneliness.

According to Blatt and Zuroff (1992) as cited in Besser, Flett and Davis (2003) “self-criticism reflects an introjective orientation that involves a focus on achieving personal goals and being highly competitive; self-critical people derive little satisfaction from their accomplishments and engage in a harsh self-scrutiny. People high in self-criticism are characterized by feelings of inferiority, guilt, and diminished self-worth that stem, in part, from their tendency to strive for absolute standards of perfection” (page 2). Individuals who have a tendency toward self-silencing are self-sacrificing people and often keep their suffering to themselves in an attempt to improve their relationships. The distress tends to take the form of anger, which ultimately does not get expressed.

Besser, Flett and Davis (2003) found that introjective, self-critical personality styles were associated with heightened levels of loneliness. They are also highly sensitive to external feedback, which tends to pose conflicts between their internal and external selves. The self-silencing behavior serves as a protective mechanism for defending against these conflicts in the hope of maintaining or improving their relationships. Self-critical individuals also have a decreased tendency to reach out for social support and have a propensity for distancing themselves. Ultimately, in their relationships many feeling of anger and hostility tend to become suppressed. Besser, Flett and Davis (2003) also found that silencing the self served as a mediator between self-criticism and loneliness.

Males and females can have many differences and it is important to account for gender differences in attachment style. Akbag and Imamoglu (2010) studied the predictive power of gender and attachment on shame, guilt and loneliness, features that largely manifest in depression. The study found that female gender predicted shame as a negative social emotion; females tended to experience more shame than males. Some possible explanations are that females can be more interpersonally sensitive than men; they are more affected by wrong doings and/or different parental attitudes toward men and women.

The study also looked at guilt. Gender does not have an impact on guilt. However, attachment style did play a role in guilt. Individuals with less guilt tend to have a more dismissive attachment style. These individuals tend to have a positive sense of self. They focus on their own needs and they feel little responsibility for others and are not as likely to feel as much guilt.  Loneliness was also not predicted by gender, but they did find that loneliness plays a significant role in all attachment styles and that the pattern of early attachment has a larger impact on loneliness than shame or guilt. It should also be noted that although many of the findings of this study were valid, culture could have played an important role as all data collected was from Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey. This is a major limitation of this study. This study needs to be replicated in a culturally diverse population.

Neurology of Loneliness

Research conducted by Cacioppo et al., (2009) explored how individual differences in loneliness relate to neural responses to social and emotional stimuli. They found that there are two or more neural mechanisms that differentiate social perception in lonely and nonlonely adults. Individuals that suffer from loneliness are less motivated by social stimuli and that connection is associated with decreased activation in the ventral striatum. It has been found that social cooperation and romantic love are also associated with the degree of activation in the ventral striatum (Rilling et al., 2002; Aron et al., 2005).

The ventral striatum is typically known as the region involved in reward, expected reward and motivational evaluation (Smith & Berridge, 2005; Knutson and Bossaerts, 2007; Yeates et al., 2007). Cacioppo et al., (2009) hypothesized that individuals high on loneliness experience less pleasure than non-lonely individuals in terms of their social interactions. In this study, they assessed differences in neural responses to stimuli (emotional content) and nonsocial stimuli using fMRI in individuals varying in loneliness. They found that “the lonelier the participant is, the less activation is elicited by pleasant pictures of people than of objects in the brain regions centered in the ventral striatum, extending to the right amygdala, subgenual region of the ACC, caudate, thalamus, insula, lentiform, and putamen.

“Follow-up analyses indicated that participants who were low, compared to those who were high, in loneliness tended to show stronger activation of the ventral stratum in response to pleasant pictures of people, whereas the opposite pattern was observed when they were exposed to pleasant pictures of objects. Prior research has found that social interactions are more rewarding for individuals who score low than those scoring high in loneliness” (Cacioppo et al., 2009, page 6).

Coping, Culture and Societal Norms

Loneliness can be extremely difficult to deal with and can lead to severe psychological distress. Many individuals have various methods of coping with their loneliness. Pereira et al., (2013) describes prayer as a method of coping. When individuals are exhibiting a lack of closeness in relationships, God is seen as an attachment figure or “safe haven” when faced with threat and might represent a safe base for these individuals (Kirkpatrick, 1999). This type of coping is common in those with an anxious attachment style. The avoidantly-attached individuals are more likely to identify as agnostic.

In regards to men based on a study conducted by Rokach (1999) varying cultures seem to impact distancing, denial, religion and faith. The men from America tended to rely on distancing and denial more often than men from other countries. Religion and faith seemed to be a much more common method of coping with loneliness in other countries where they are much more integrated in their lifestyles such as South Asia and the West Indies. Overall, regardless of cultural background, men tend to cope with loneliness through work and increased activity as a way of distracting themselves from these feelings. All these observations are made based on heterosexual men. Men with any other sexual orientation are rarely if ever included in these studies.

Another factor that plays a large role in loneliness is the impact of culture. One of the biggest differences is the stress that western cultures place on romantic relationships as opposed to the non-western cultures (Goodwin, 2001; Medora, Larson, Hortacsu, and Dave, 2002). Because of the intense desire to be in a romantic relationship in western cultures, individuals may experience increased levels of loneliness. For instance, in South-Korea, a non western culture, adolescent are looked down upon if they develop relationships with members of the opposite sex. In North-Korea there is a belief that these adolescents will become failures in their lives. Intimacy in these non-western cultures tends to emphasize and encourage relationships between parents and siblings (Goodwin, 2001).

Westerners also tend to experience greater levels of closeness to romantic partners than in non-western cultures. This would feature “a sense of connectedness, shared understandings, mutual responsiveness, mutual dependence, self-disclosure, or intersubjectivity” (Aron & Mashek, 2004, p. 417). Another possible reason is that westerners tend to have unrealistic or idealized notions of what it might mean to be in a romantic relationship (Seepersad, 2008). Given that most westerners tend to view romantic relationships as the most important and central source of love and intimacy, it makes sense that loneliness would mean different things in different cultures. Again, in all these studies, romantic relationships only refer to a relationship between a man and a woman.

Another part of culture is understood in terms of how we characterize and value our roles in society. For instance, in most cultures gender identification is one of the most significant factors that plays a huge role in how we develop attachments and not just romantic and intimate relationships but in society in general including work and social life. Secure attachment patterns are very important in developing appropriate ways to interact depending on the individual’s gender identity.

Society’s expectations for men and how masculinity is defined in a given culture also play a large role in loneliness. O’Neil’s (1981) work suggests that rigid, sexist and restrictive gender roles are learned by males during their childhood. He further suggests that they restrict a person’s full potential. This type of upbringing may lead to violence, and places the individual at psychological and physical risks. Part of the psychological risks includes men’s restriction of emotional expression and overall anxiety about dating relationships and intimacy. He shows that men’s restrictive emotions are correlated with various consequences of discomfort in close interpersonal relationships. In this and other studies conducted at that time, sexuality, other than heterosexuality is either ignored or still considered pathological and a result of early trauma or poor parenting. Furthermore, O’Neil and others also show that society’s acceptance and approval of gender conflict in men can lead to psychological distress; this may include homophobic feelings, support for Type A behavior, the idea that self-disclosure is unmanly and many others (Good and Mintz, 1990; Sharp and Heppner, 1991; Thompson, Grisanti, and Pleck, 1985).

Age is another factor that should be considered when thinking about loneliness. The elderly population tends experience more extreme difficulties with loneliness than the average due to retirement, mobility limitations and the death of friends and family. As attachments decrease, levels of loneliness tend to increase (Schnittker, 2007).

Internet and Social Media

The use of the Internet and social media has grown significantly in recent years. More and more individuals are using the Internet to find romantic partners. The various applications and dating sites available to singles have made it much easier and also manageable to find and maintain relationships. This is particularly helpful for individuals with insecure attachment patterns. Social media and the internet are the only way for these people to build relationships. While this has been a revolutionary discovery for so many people who are finding love on the Internet, it can also be a coping tool for individuals who suffer from loneliness.

But how much Internet use is too much?  Odaci and Kalkan (2010) consider 5 hours per day of Internet use as the threshold beyond which it is pathological. They found large correlations between Internet use, loneliness and dating anxiety. There are several ways that Internet dating can contribute to feelings of loneliness. For instance, it is much harder to establish a stable identity; many individuals lose their identity because they are desperate to belong to a group and receive group acceptance. Many individuals with social anxiety tend to struggle to make friends and feel rather empty in these Internet interactions the Internet and social media frequently replace their real in person relationships leaving them with feelings of loneliness and isolation. The Internet may serve as a way to fill this need.

The Internet allows individuals to talk with strangers without revealing one’s own character; hiding their negative traits and highlighting the ideal character trait they would like to have. This in turn ends up decreasing levels of loneliness, while also increasing the likelihood that lonely individuals have a high propensity for cyber relationships. Unfortunately, this method for reducing loneliness and social anxiety actually may be a way of avoiding social relationships leading to dysfunctional connections in society (Odaci & Kalkan, 2009).

Anticipated Timeline:

On October 19th, I plan to sit down with my dissertation Chair and the Committee to defend my proposal.  I will make the changes suggested by the Committee and will then send the dissertation to the IRB by late November. I will make the revisions recommended by the IRB and will resubmit. Early December, I will start recruiting participants for the study and conduct screenings and interviews. Ideally, all data should be collected by the beginning of March. I will do the analysis of the data and write up the results. By the beginning of June, the dissertation should be complete and I will be able to schedule my final dissertation defense.

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