Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional state that occurs because of dissatisfaction with the quality of one’s relationships. Lonely people may feel emotional pain, sadness, and emptiness and feel distanced from and misunderstood by other people. More technically, loneliness can be defined as a discrepancy between an individual’s desired level and actual level of social contact. Loneliness is a subjective experience; therefore one can be alone but not lonely. Conversely, one may have many friends and other social contacts but still feel lonely.

Weiss (1973) identified two types of loneliness. Emotional loneliness occurs when an individual fails to have a close relationship or confidant such as a romantic partner or very close friend. Social loneliness arises when a person has no ties to a social group such as a group of friends or a social organization. Anyone may suffere from either type of loneliness or both. Improving the quality of one typoe of relatioshp (social or emotional) does not typically ameliorate the other type of loneliness.

Miller, Perlman, and Brehm (2007) review the research on personal demographic and social characteristics associated with loneliness. Loneliness occurs with greater frequency in some countries than in others. In one study that compared 18 countries, Italians and Japanese reported the highest levels of loneliness while people from Denmark reported the lowest levels. Citizens of the United States also reported high levels (ranking fourth; Stack, 1995, 1998). Unmarried people are more lonely than married people, but divorced and widowed people are more lonely tan those who never married. When unmarried people are asked indirectly about loneliness (i.e., asking about relationships and feelings without actually using the word lonely), men report more loneliness than women. When asked directly, women report more loneliness than men (Pinquart, 2003). Most researchers consider indirect measures of loneliness more valid. The explanation for men’s underreporting of loneliness when asked directly is that the stigma associated with loneliness is greater for men than for women. For men, emotional loneliness is most often remedied through a relationship with a woman; men’s relationships with one another tend to involve relatively little self-disclosure and emotional closeness. Women’s friendship relationships with other women can be quite close, involving a great deal of disclosure, and emotional loneliness for women may typically be remedied through either a romantic relationship with a man (or woman) or a friendship relationship with a woman.

Age is related to loneliness. Perlman’s (1990) review of six surveys involving 18,000 people in North America revealed that in general, people are lonelier when they are adolescents or young adults than when they are middle-aged. Beyond the age of 40, loneliness tends to be associated with divorce, death of a spouse, or poor health.

Loneliness may be caused by both situational factors and an individual’s personal characteristics. In a national survey of loneliness in the United States, people provided five major reasons why they were lonely (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982):

  1. having no spouse or sexual partner,
  2. feeling different or misunderstood or having no close friendships,
  3. being alone, particularly coming home to a house with no one there,
  4. being forced into isolation (due to being homebound, hospitalized, or having no transportation), and
  5. being dislocated (from moving, starting a new job or school, or traveling frequently).

Notice that the research participants mentioned both situational causes (e.g., forced isolation, dislocation) and causes that are more likely related to personal characteristics (e.g., feeling different or misunderstood, no close friends, or no spouse or partner). Additionally, the participants described both emotional loneliness and social loneliness situations.

Personal characteristics associated with loneliness are both cognitive (thoughts, attitudes) and behavioral. Lonely people may have low self-esteem, viewing themselves as unworthy or unlovable: as a result, they may be resigned to their loneliness (McWhirter, 1997). People who are lonely may have negative views and attitudes toward other people. They may have an attitude of mistrust toward others and a general negative attitude toward others (including disliking others). Negative or mistrustful attitudes may manifest in behaviors such as being unresponsive in interactions with others, failing to ask questions, responding slowly to what other people say, changing topics at inappropriate times, or a lack of personal disclosure. Even individuals who generally dislike other people crave social interaction and contact and experience emotional distress when lonely.

Lonely people can take action to attempt to improve their situations. Miller, Perlman, and Brehm (2007) make several helpful suggestions. First, lonely people can question their attitudes. A fear of rejection or disappointment may result in social withdrawal. However, little is lost if one forces oneself to interact, show interest in others, or engage in some self-disclosure. Adopting a positive attitude may result in positive social interactions. People tend to blame loneliness on their own personal inadequacies; however, situational factors likely play a part as well. It may be beneficial to consider situational factors that may be contributing to loneliness; it is generally not constructive to put all the blame on oneself. Third, once lonely people have considered and identified situational factors, they may think about how their attitudes are contributing to the problem and reconsider those attitudes. Individuals who think that people are selfish, uncaring, and untrustworthy may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, it is more helpful to try to find the positive qualities in others. Fourth, if the preceding advice does not lead to positive results, social skills training may be helpful. Another useful exercise involves reexamining one’s attitudes and behaviors. For example, an individual who is attempting to heal loneliness by searching for a romantic partner might find a close friendship to be emotionally satisfying and personally enriching.

  • Miller, R.S., Perlman, D., & Brehm, S.S. (2007). Intimate relationships. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Check, J.V.P., Perlman, D., & Malamuth, N.M. (1985). Loneliness and aggressive behavior. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2, 243 – 252.
  • McWhirter, B.T. (1997). Loneliness, learned resourcefulness, and self-esteem in college students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 75, 460 – 469.
  • Perlman, D. (1990). Age differences in loneliness: A meta-analysis. Paper presented at the 98th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED326767).
  • Pinquart, M. (2003). Loneliness in married, widowed, divorced, and never-married older adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 31 – 53.
  • Rubenstein, C.M., & Shaver, P. (1982). In search of intimacy. New York: Delacorte Press.
  • Solano, C.H. & Koester, N.H. (1989). Loneliness and communication problems: Subjective anxiety or objective skills? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 126 – 133.
  • Stack, S. (1995). Gender, marriage and loneliness: A cross-national study. Unpublished manuscript, Wayne State University.
  • Since cognitive science Opens in new window has taken on board this commonsense view of the mind, an important question is how such a relationship to a proposition can be implemented.

    The representation theory of mind (RTM; Field, 1978; Fodor, 1978) assumes that a propositional attitude consists in holding a representation of the proposition and that this representation plays a certain functional role in the economy of mental states. This can be best illustrated with the two core concepts: belief and desire.

    These are core concepts, since knowing what someone believes (thinks) to be the case (e.g., Max thinking the chocolate is in the cupboard and thinking that going there will get the chocolate into his possession) and what that person desires (wants) (e.g., Max wanting the chocolate to be in his possession) allows us to make a behavioral prediction that Max will approach the cupboard. This kind of inference is known since Aristotle as the practical syllogism.

    Searle (1983, after Anscombe, 1957) points out that these two states are mirror images in terms of causal direction and direction of fit. The function of a belief is to be caused by reality and the believed proposition should match reality.

    For instance, the chocolate being in the cupboard should be responsible for Max’s believing that the chocolate is in the cupboard (world to mind causation) and the proposition “the chocolate is in the cupboard” should thus match the relevant state of affairs in the world (mind should fit world).

    The function of desire (want) is to cause a change in the world (mind to world causation) so that the world conforms to the desired proposition (world should fit mind)—for example, if Max wants the chocolate to be in the cupboard, then this desire should cause action leading to a change of the chocolate’s location such that it conforms to what Max desires.

    This trivial-sounding example does highlight the important distinctions.

    Three Important Distinctions

    1. First vs. Third Person

    One important distinction is between first-person and third-person attribution of mental states. A third-person attribution is an attribution to another person and a first-person attribution is one to myself.

    For instance, if Max erroneously believes that the chocolate is still in the cupboard (because he didn’t see that it was unexpectedly put into the drawer), then a third-person observer will attribute a false belief to Max. In contrast, Max himself will make a first-person attribution of knowledge to himself.

    The observer can capture this difference between her own and Max’s subjective view by the second-order attribution that Max thinks he knows where the chocolate is. This is useful to keep in mind when it comes to false memories. Since a memory can only be a recollection of something that actually occurred, a false memory is not a memory by third-person attribution, although it is by first-person attribution.

    1. Sense and Reference

    A related second point has to do with Frege’s (1892/1960) distinction between sense and reference. Since mental states involve representations, they connect us to objects and events in the real (or a possible) world.

    Famously, Oedipus knew and married Iocaste (referent: a particular person), but he did not know or marry her as his mother but as an unrelated queen (sense: how Iocaste was presented to Oedipus’ mind).

    Thus, in third-person parlance we can say that Oedipus married his mother if we use the expression “his mother” to pick out (refer to) the individual whom he married without implying that he knew Iocaste under that description. In first-person description of the event Oedipus would not have used the descriptor “my mother.”

    These distinctions are useful to keep in mind when discussing infants’ ability to remember particular events: Whenever a memory trace of a unique event can be demonstrated then one can conclude (in first-person parlance) as a particular event—that is, that the infant makes cognitive distinctions that represent that event as a particular event.

    1. Having vs. Representing a Mental State

    The third important distinction is that between being in a mental state (or having an attitude) and representing that mental state.

    For understanding or knowing that a person is in a mental state, or to reflect on one’s own mental states, one has to be able to represent that state. In order to be able to represent a state, one needs a concept of that state—that is, a rich enough theory of mind.

    The study of how children acquire the requisite theory of mind is therefore essential for our understanding of how children come to understand memory. Furthermore, since some memorial states are reflective or self-referential, children need a theory of mind for being in such states or having such memories.

    Why We Need a Theory of Mind for Memory

    We probably do not need a theory of mind for implicit (nondeclarative Opens in new window) memory, but for explicit (declarative Opens in new window) memory we do, since “explicit memory is revealed when performance on a task requires conscious recollection of previous experiences.” (Schacter, 1987).

    To be conscious of a fact one requires to be also aware of the state with which one beholds that fact. The higher-order-thought theories of consciousness make this their core claim (Armstrong, 1980; Rosenthal, 1986).

    For instance, if one sees a state of affairs X (e.g., that the chocolate is in the cupboard), then this seeing is a first-order mental state (attitude).

    To be conscious of this state of affairs means, according to theory, that one entertains a second-order thought about the seeing—that is, the second-order thought represents the first-order seeing.

    A weaker version does not require that one has to entertain the second-order thought, but only that one has to have the potential for having the second-order thought (Carruthers, 1996). That some such condition must be true can be seen from the following consideration:

    “Could it ever be that I can genuinely claim that I am consciously aware of the chocolate being in the cupboard, but claim ignorance of the first-order mental state by which I behold this state of affairs—that is, by claiming that I have no clue as to whether I see, or just think of, or want the chocolate being in the cupboard?”

    The important point of these conceptual analyses is that to be conscious of some fact requires some minimal concept of knowledge or of some perceptual state like seeing.

    Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence when children understand a minimal state of this sort. There is some evidence of understanding (mother’s) emotional reactions and seeing (direction of gaze) in the first year of life (see Perner, 1991, chap. 6; Baldwin & Moses, 1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997, for summaries and discussion of problems of interpretation).

    There is also some recent evidence that between 8 and 12 months children might be inferring people’s intentions to grasp an object from where that person looks (Spelke, Philips, & Woodward, 1995) and even between 5 to 9 months from how a person touches an object (seemingly intentional or accidentally).

    And by 18 months (where children’s understanding of mental phenomena seems to flourish in general) children imitate people’s intended actions even when they observe a failed attempt (Meltzoff, 1955a) and they understand differences in preferences (e.g., that someone else can prefer cauliflower over biscuits, Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997).

    Evidence that children distinguish their knowledge from ignorance is available at a relatively late age. Povinelli, Perilloux, and Bierschwale (1993) asked children to look for a sticker under one of three cups.

    Children were first trained to look under the cup at which the experimenter had pointed. After some training even the youngest were able to do this.

    When asked to look without the experimenter pointing, an interesting developmental difference emerged. Children older than 2 years and 4 months acted without hesitation when they knew which the cup the sticker was under, but hesitated noticeably when—in the absence of the experimenter’s poining—they had to guess where it was.

    Interestingly this is also the age at which children start using the phrase “I don’t know” (Shatz, Wellman, & Silber, 1983). In contrast, children younger than that showed no comparable difference in reaction time. This may indicate that young 2-year-olds do not yet reflect on what they do and do not know.

    So, theory of mind research is not yet able to give a guideline for when infants might develop explicit, conscious memories. Memory development may help out on this point.

    Meltzoff (1985, 1995b) demonstrated that 14-month-old infants can reenact a past event (e.g., they imitate the experimenter leaning forward to touch a panel with forehead so that panel lights up) after several months. Recently this has been demonstrated in 11-month-olds with a delay of 3 months.

    Since this is achieved from a brief observational period and does not require prolonged learning, and since patients with amnesia cannot do this (McDonough, Mandler, KcKee, & Squire, 1995), it is tempting to conclude that such enactment demonstrates explicit, conscious memory.

    One should, though, keep in mind that delayed imitation that is based on a single event (third-person view) is not to be equated with a memory (knowledge) of that event as a single, past event (first-person view).

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      Adapted from: The Oxford Handbook of Memory. Authored by ENDEL TULVING (ED.), Fergus I. M. Craik