As an existential reality, existential isolation refers to the fundamental gap between individuals where it is impossible to know with certainty how anyone else subjectively experiences or interprets the world. Since humans cannot read each other’s minds, we can never know with 100% certainty how anyone else is subjectively thinking or feeling.
While this may be true for everyone from an existential perspective, individuals tend to vary in the degree to which they feel as though they’re experiencing existential isolation. In other words, people vary in the degree to which they feel like others can understand their personal inner experiences. People high in existential isolation endorse beliefs like, “People do not often share my perspective.”
While empirical psychologists have spent decades studying the experience of loneliness (the subjective sense that the nature or quality of one’s social relationships are less than desired) and social isolation (an objective measure of the frequency of contact with others), very little research has been conducted on understanding the nature and consequences of existential isolation. However, research has clearly shown that people high in existential isolation tend to be higher in depression and lower in well-being and satisfaction with life. Studies have also shown that men tend to report significantly higher average existential isolation than do women. In our recent study, we sought to replicate this effect and test whether the effect may be explained by differences in the values that are emphasized for girls and boys during the socialization process.
Socialization broadly refers to the processes of learning how to behave in culturally acceptable ways, and males and females have historically been socialized into different roles in our society. One consequence of these different gender roles is that men tend to endorse more agentic values than communal values, and women endorse more communal values than agentic ones. Communal values promote group harmony (e.g., values of forgiveness and trust) and social connections. In contrast, agentic values promote independence and self-promotion (e.g., values of wealth and ambition). Previous theorists and researchers have argued that gender socialization processes lead boys toward agentic values and away from communal values. Thus, we hypothesized that males tend to experience more existential isolation because of this lower endorsement of communal values, which inhibits a sense of close connection to others.
In our first study, we replicated the findings from previous existential isolation research using a large undergraduate sample. As expected, we found men reported higher existential isolation than did women. We also found that differences in self-esteem and in loneliness could not account for the difference in reported existential isolation. In our second study, again using an undergraduate sample, we found that sex differences in communal (but not agentic) value endorsement could explain sex differences in reported existential isolation. In other words, once we statistically controlled for sex differences in communal values, the sex differences in existential isolation disappeared.
Initially, we expected both agentic and communal value endorsement to explain these effects, but we did not observe a significant sex difference in agentic value endorsement. One potential reason for this could be that our sample consisted of undergraduates in the United States, and college-educated women are more likely to be agentic than are non-college educated women. Generally, these trends speak to cultural shifts in gender socialization where women are increasingly engaging in more agentic roles but men are not engaging in more communal roles.
In conclusion, the results from these studies suggest that the problem of existential isolation stems largely from a deficit in endorsing communal values. A next step in this line of work should test whether increasing communal values in men could help reduce their feelings of existential isolation.
These findings are described in the article entitled Explaining sex differences in existential isolation research, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This work was conducted by Peter J. Helm, Lyla G. Rothschild, Jeff Greenberg, and Alyssa Croft at the University of Arizona.
- Croft, A., Schmader, T., & Block, K. (2015). An underexamined inequality: Cultural and psychological barriers to men’s engagement with communal roles. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19, 343–370.
- Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social role approach. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Helm, P. J., Greenberg. J., Park, Y. C., & Pinel, E. C. (in press). Feeling alone in your subjectivity: Introducing the state trait existential isolation model (STEIM). Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology.