Loneliness as a Component of Psychiatric Disorders

Richard Booth, PhD


Medscape General Medicine. 2000;2(2) 

In This Article

The Cognitive Dimension

This model argues that lonely people may conceptualize or think differently from nonlonely people. At the core of cognition lies the abstract-concrete thinking dichotomy, with abstract thinking being necessary for effective problem-solving and generation of alternatives to current behavioral and other life patterns. Building on Gorham's premise that people with abstract cognitive styles are better able to transform concrete symbols into concepts,[22] this author[23] has found that lonely people differ significantly from nonlonely people in their ability to think abstractly, with the latter performing better.

Horowitz and his colleagues[19] found that lonely people have greater difficulty than nonlonely people in generating effective solutions to their interpersonal problems. When they explored lonely people's attributional styles, these researchers found that lonely people were more likely than nonlonely people to attribute their lack of interpersonal successes to their own abilities and deficient traits. This suggested that loneliness might negatively influence self-esteem. The overall research on loneliness and self-esteem clearly shows that this is indeed the case. It seems that the lonely people they tested constructed an attributional style that was self-deprecating; moreover, lonely people had the sense that their personality traits and lack of interpersonal abilities were stable and unlikely to change over time. In effect, they blamed themselves for their relational unhappiness and tended not to see a way out of their lonely situation.

Gordon found that cognitive expectancies play a salient role in the lives of lonely people in that lonely people tend to engage in unrealistic expectations about the quality of the relationships in their lives. For example, lonely college students expected that they should always have dates, and be popular, beautiful, and successful.[24] However, given their tendency to solve their interpersonal problems ineffectively, they merely held these expectations without knowing how to alter them and, in some cases, were not even aware of how unrealistic their expectations actually were.

These findings lead to the question of how flexible or inflexible lonely people's cognitive sets might be. Given that concrete thinking, by definition, is an inflexible and fundamentally unidimensional mode of thought,[25] it would appear that the constituents for possible chronic loneliness are in place, at least with respect to the way lonely people tend to think about their "failed" interpersonal life situations.