Chronically lonely teens tend to respond very differently to being invited to or excluded from social events than their non-lonely peers, according to a new study.
In both situations, lonely teens tend to entertain thoughts that are very self-defeating, which may ultimately perpetuate rather than reduce their loneliness.
For example, even the rare invitation to a social event is likely to be met with suspicion: “It’s not that I’m worthy, I just got lucky,” they might think. And when excluded from a gathering of peers, the chronically lonely teen will often attribute it to a personal flaw.
For the study, researchers from Duke University, the University of Leuven (Belgium), and Ghent University (Belgium) investigated whether the interpretations and emotions triggered when teens are included and excluded by peers differed between those who were chronically lonely and those with a more positive social history.
The study, which involved 730 adolescents in Belgium, charted individual trajectories of loneliness based on four annual questionnaires. The researchers found that most teens did not experience high levels of loneliness or if they did it was not long-lasting, but they also found that a small subgroup of adolescents felt lonely year after year.
These chronically lonely individuals may respond to social situations in ways that perpetuate rather than reduce their loneliness, the researchers said.
For example, chronically lonely teens were far more likely to attribute social inclusion to circumstantial factors instead of their own merit, and to attribute social exclusion to their own shortcomings.
“Chronically lonely adolescents seem to interpret social inclusion and exclusion situations in a self-defeating way,” said first author Dr. Janne Vanhalst of University of Leuven, who was a visiting scholar in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke during various phases of the research.
“These self-defeating interpretations not only make them feel worse after being socially excluded, but also less enthusiastic when being socially included,” Vanhalst said. “Therefore, loneliness interventions should try to change the ways adolescents think and feel about social situations, to break the vicious cycle of chronic loneliness.”
The researchers focused on loneliness in late adolescence (ages 15 to 18, when data collection began), an age characterized by many changes in social expectations, roles and relationships, researchers said. This is also when teens spend increasingly more time with peers and develop more stable and intimate peer relationships.
The researchers presented short scenarios to the participants involving social inclusion and social exclusion. Participants were asked to rate how they would think and feel if they were in these situations.
Examples of the scenarios included the following:
- “A new lunch place opened in town, and they are giving away free sandwiches today. Some of your classmates are going there for lunch and they ask you if you want to join them” (social inclusion situation);
- “You open your Facebook account and see that many of your classmates have been tagged in an album. You have a look at the pictures in the album, and you notice that the pictures were taken several days ago at the birthday party of one of your classmates. You were not invited” (social exclusion situation).
The findings show that chronically lonely adolescents experienced greater negative emotions (including sadness, disappointment, anger, jealousy, offense, anxiety, and insecurity) in response to social exclusion, and were more likely to attribute social exclusion to their own personal characteristics.
In situations involving social inclusion, chronically lonely adolescents were markedly less enthusiastic than the other teens, and they were more likely to attribute social inclusion to coincidence.
Furthermore, lonely teens appeared to take social exclusion especially hard, blaming the exclusion on their own personal failure and experiencing more negative emotion in response to exclusion.
“These findings show us that adolescents with a history of chronic loneliness seem to be responding to social situations in ways that may perpetuate their loneliness,” said Dr. Molly Weeks, a co-author of this study, and a research scientist in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke.
“Future research should investigate when and how temporary loneliness becomes chronic loneliness and figure out how we can intervene to prevent that from happening.”
Reflecting on previous research in the field as well as the current findings, Dr. Steven Asher, study co-author and professor of psychology and neuroscience, said “We know from previous research that loneliness is affected by how well people are accepted by peers, whether they have friends and by the quality and closeness of their friendships.
“An important next step is to learn whether helping lonely adolescents make less negative interpretations in social situations will facilitate the development of more satisfying relationships and promote lower levels of loneliness.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Source: Duke University