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Reflective monitoring in lonely adolescents.


Loneliness is prevalent among adolescents (Brennan & Anslander, 1979), and is related to a number of affective and cognition problems (Jones, Freeman, & Goswich, 1981). Loneliness is often a product of situational change (such as divorce or loss of spouse), or transitional change; for example, loneliness may be experienced as mood swings (Young, 1982). On the other hand, as a result of long-standing behavioral and affective disorders, loneliness may become chronic, lasting two years or more. Whereas situational and transient loneliness are generally the products of environmental events, chronic loneliness is thought to be related to internal factors such as dysfunctional cognitions and affective states which interact with the environment (Young, 1982). Likewise, chronic loneliness in some individuals may stem from personality characteristics, such as shyness (Zimbardo, 1977). Chronic loneliness in adolescents is primarily a "dysfunction of interpersonal relationships" (Goswick & Jones, 1982, p. 374), and it affects physical health (Lynch, 1976) and mental health (Wenz, 1977; Nerviana & Gross, 1976).

Loneliness may be perpetuated by, and promote, deficient social support systems. For example, college-age adolescents affected by loneliness tend to have poor social skills (Gerson & Perlman, 1979), as well as poor coping skills (Peplau & Perlman, 1979). From a life-span perspective, lonely adolescents' immature or poor social skills may be mirrored in later dysfunctional adult relationships (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona (1980); Goswick & Jones, 1982). Nevertheless, despite its pervasiveness, little research has addressed the factors that promote loneliness (Jones et al., 1981), particularly among adolescents.

Loneliness has been seen as having three interacting components: an unpleasant and distressful affective experience, a subjective-cognitive experience, and a deficiency in social relationships (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). Although considerable literature is available on loneliness as a cognitive or affective experience, systematic research on its multiple interacting components has remained unintegrated (Jones, Freeman, & Goswick, 1981). The purpose of this paper is to present a model of chronic loneliness which describes interrelationships among the three components. This model does not account for all chronic loneliness, such as experienced by shy persons. Instead, the goal is to explain how chronic loneliness may develop in some persons who are unable to adequately reflect on, and thus learn from, their social interactions. First, a rationale behind the importance of reflective monitoring to the development of chronic loneliness is presented. The role of reflective monitoring is then highlighted in the development and perpetuation of chronic loneliness.(1) Finally, some of the familial and intraindividual precursors to a monitoring deficit are presented.

The Role of a Reflective Monitoring Deficit in Chronic Loneliness

It is posited here that monitoring the environment for social cues, as are other cognitive skills, is important to social skill development. To a certain extent we all monitor the environment for cues to guide social behavior. According to Snyder (1979), high self-monitoring individuals react to cues from the environment, and their behavior is based on the social demands of the situation, while low self-monitoring individuals tend not to react to environmental cues. Therefore, behavior is primarily the expression of internal states such as affect and cognition. For instance, a high self-monitoring person will choose friends on the basis of compatibility as opposed to more superficial criteria such as social desirability (Snyder Berscheid, & Glick 1983)). The preference for internal or external cues is not generally detrimental.

The tendency toward low self-monitoring, however, may become detrimental when it precludes the understanding that one must, to some extent, refer to the environment for guidance. Extremely low self-monitoring people may be at risk of becoming chronically lonely. In fact, chronically lonely people are more likely to monitor their own reactions as opposed to their partners' (Jones, Freeman, & Goswich, 1981) and fail to be aware of the social-situational norms related to self-disclosure (Chelune, Sultan, & Williams, 1980). The chronically lonely may also fail to evaluate the effectiveness of social skills in daily interactions. Whereas the socially skilled may evaluate the norms of the setting, the person, and the situation, the chronically lonely may focus solely on self, thus failing to evaluate the effectiveness of communication in different settings.

Such deficient reflective monitoring may be related to flaws in metacognitive abilities necessary for communication (Flavell, 1977). Metacognition refers to conscious, reflective knowledge concerning social-cognitive tasks, goals, and strategies. Moreover, metacognition involves the capacity to evaluate, change, and experiment with these strategies, which may enable the individual to refine social skills. Chronically lonely adolescents fail to learn basic social strategies because they do not reflect on the appropriateness of their behavior. Thus, they tend not to devise or test new strategies in response to changes in the environment. Instead, they may interact with others using faulty and immature social skills--remnants of the few social lessons they have learned.

Poor reflective monitoring skills may become the root of later dysfunction. The chronically lonely may fail to develop the skills necessary for satisfying social relationships. They have difficulty establishing friendships in adolescence because reflective monitoring is necessary for regulating behavior according to the demands of the situation and the needs of the participants. Hence, people who do little reflective monitoring in social situations are more likely to be rejected by their peers. As a result of this rejection, they become candidates for chronic loneliness.

A Developmental Psychopathological Approach

Although research on chronic loneliness suggests that it is best understood in terms of the three interactive components noted (Peplau & Perlman, 1979), information to date has remained largely unintegrated due to lack of a conceptual framework. The developmental psychopathological approach provides a conceptual tool for potential integration of these disparate areas of research.

Since chronic loneliness is a developmental problem, development is the basis of the model and deviation is the focus. Developmental psychopathology may be defined as the study of the origins and course of individual patterns of behavioral maladaptation (Sroufe & Rutter, 1984). The following assumptions are essential to the developmental psychopathological model.

1. Holism--behavior can be determined only within the total psychological context. The meaning of behavior is found in behavioral patterns, not in isolated behaviors. For instance, chronic loneliness is a composite of emotional responses, cognitions, and social behaviors. Each component must be understood in terms of its relationship with the other components.

2. Behavioral changes occur in context, and the kind of behavior that occurs is a function of its context, i.e., the meaning of behavior is related to the individual's intention in a particular situation. As Sroufe (1979) suggests, two behaviors may appear identical, but can have very different meanings for the individual depending on the context. The meaning and function of behavior are directed by the individual (Santosfestano, 1978). For instance, the chronically lonely individual may become hostile after much rejection. Although hostility is counterproductive, it alleviates the effects of rejection.

3. Through the differentiation of modes and goals, individuals can develop both toward increasing flexibility and higher levels of organization. Chronically lonely adolescents may fail to adapt to the adolescent social system by failing to integrate the social and cognitive skills demanded by that situation.

4. Behavioral functions may change; behavior patterns become hierarchically integrated as development occurs. Dysfunctional behavior, however, may be manifest during a transitional stage, or during a period of stress. Stress is experienced by most people during transitional periods. However, the chronically lonely adolescent does not have the skills required for coping with such situations. The dysfunction then is defined by the inappropriate fit to context. In turn, the inability to develop or use effective monitoring and other metacommunication skills produces more stress. Thus, a psychopathological approach is necessary for understanding the components that produce chronic loneliness.

The developmental psychopathological approach focuses on interacting factors (such as maturational change, environmental influences, and prior developmental states) that may influence development. The interaction of these factors is important in the diagnosis and prediction of psychopathology.

It is proposed here that the chronically lonely adolescent has always lacked monitoring abilities, but this becomes maladaptive in the context of salient developmental issues of adolescence. The altered pattern of behavior in early childhood only later takes the form of disorder (Rutter, 1981). Similarly, the children may themselves influence development by closing or narrowing opportunities for social interaction related to the lack of social skills. The lack of monitoring skill may not be a salient issue for the three-year-old toddler whose chief developmental task is exploration, experimentation, mastery of objects, and striving for autonomy from the caregiver (Sroufe, 1979). Similarly, childhood friendship is based on a cognitive level that, for the most part, is characterized by explicit expectations and codes of behavior. Friendship in childhood is based on the proximity of the participants and the immediate exchange of materials in play (Youniss & Volpe, 1978).

It is not until adolescence that friendship becomes related to psychological compatibility and the relationship extends beyond the immediate setting. Friendships are then based on the meshing of mutual interests and individual personalities. The development of a friendship, then, is dependent on each participant's ability to understand others' perspectives, interests, and needs. Metacommunication, monitoring in particular, may be more important at this time. Since conceptualization of friendship gains depth and breadth during adolescence, the adolescent must develop or activate cognitive and social skills, such as metacommunication, not previously important to relationships.

It is at this time that the lack of monitoring skill would be salient. For instance, lonely individuals have poor interpersonal social skills; they pay less attention to and are perceived by others to be less involved in social interactions (Bell, 1985). Lonely individuals lack many of the social skills necessary to develop the more mature, intimate relationships of adolescence and adulthood. The failure to make the transition from childhood to adolescent social relationships may have a detrimental effect on the emotional and cognitive well-being of the developing adolescent. These effects extend beyond the ability to develop intimate relationships with others. Chronic loneliness, then, becomes the product not only of an initial disability, but the continuing maladaptive efforts of the individual responding to a rejecting environment. From the developmental psychopathological approach, a behavior once viewed as adaptive (following rigid, externalized social codes during childhood) may become maladaptive at a later point (the inability to communicate on an intimate level with other teenagers).

The present model of chronic loneliness focuses primarily on the reflective monitoring deficit which is hypothesized to underlie the development of later cognitive, affective, and behavioral disorders. In the present model chronic loneliness is perceived to be largely the product of a deficit in a cognitive process--reflective monitoring. This suggests that deficient reflective monitoring skills results in inappropriate behavior and a lack of responsiveness to changing social demands. Lack of social sensitivity may, in turn, evoke social rejection. Social rejection, compounded by the inability to understand the basis of this rejection, results in the affective responses related to chronic loneliness. These emotions include feelings of anxiety, poor self-esteem (McCandless, 1967; Moore & Schultz, 1983), and alienation (Goswich & Jones, 1982). The effects of chronic loneliness are likely to be cumulative (Zigler, Lamb, & Child, 1982). Severe emotional problems such as depression, hopelessness, paranoia, and aggression, which are characteristic of the chronically lonely individual (Diamant & Windholt, 1981), are examples of these cumulative effects. Such effects reinforce poor social behavior by increasing the likelihood that the lonely individual will defensively withdraw, feel hostile toward others (Jones, Freeman, & Goswich, 1981) or act in a socially inappropriate way. For example, Jones et al. (1981) indicate that chronically lonely college students have deficient social skills in that their social interactions occur with less intimate friends (Jones, 1981), that highly lonely college students pay less attention to conversational patterns (Jones, Hobbs, & Hockenbury, 1982), and have poor social skills (Goswich & Jones, 1982).

Rejection resulting from poor social interactions reinforces the cognitive problems since the chronically lonely adolescents do not perceive themselves as the cause of rejection. Those who fail to see their role in rejection may develop an external locus of control (Moore & Schultz, 1983), and a fear of rejection (Wilbert & Rupert, 1986). These fuel further cognitive distortion, since the chronically lonely individual feels ineffectual in altering rejection. In the long run, cognitive distortions in the form of negative evaluations of interactions may result from prolonged social rejection and chronic loneliness (Hanley-Dunn, 1984). The inability to reflect assures the continuation of the cycle.

Development of the Monitoring Deficit

The lack of basic knowledge of social strategies has been found to affect children's popularity. Fortunately, programs developed to teach social strategies and skills have proven effective in treating loneliness in children (Asher & Renshaw, 1981). Adolescents' social interactions, however, may demand different and more specialized social skills (Dweck, 1981). Reflective monitoring may promote flexible and adaptive social thinking, allowing the adolescent to respond to a changing social environment. The adolescent's inability to adapt to the changing demands of the environment may be a precursor to chronic loneliness. In particular, monitoring the effectiveness of social strategies may be of importance in adolescence.

The antecedents of adolescent chronic loneliness may be found in childhood. Children at risk of becoming chronically lonely may be reared in a family that does not regard social learning as an important responsibility. For many outgoing children this may not be a problem. However, children who are temperamentally less inclined to be social may be severely affected by the lack of focus on social interaction within the family. These children, may become chronically lonely adolescents and adults.

Moreover, role taking may not be fostered in some families. Familial factors such as authoritarian parenting and role rigidity may decrease the likelihood that role-taking skills will develop because the focus is on explicit, externalized authority. Role-taking ability may develop in familial environments that encourage adaptability in social situations. Olsen, Sprenkle, & Russell (1979) have found two significant dimensions of family behavior: cohesion and adaptability. Families low on adaptability tend to be authoritarian, poor in problem-solving skills, high in role rigidity, and explicit as opposed to implicit concerning rules. Maintenance of discrete, static roles may result in a stifling of efforts to question the status quo or attempts to deviate from it. These families probably deal with adversity by clinging to established patterns of behavior as opposed to adjusting to the new circumstances.

Inflexibility in familial relations may generalize to the extrafamilial social domain. The chronically lonely may tend to remain at the earliest level of friendship development (Hanley-Dunn, Maxwell, & Santos, 1985). This lowest level, mutual cooperation, is characteristic of concrete operational children (Smollar & Youniss, 1982). These authors describe mutual cooperation as characterized by the use of set rules of interaction; when they are not adhered to, the friendship ends. An at-risk child may be unable to overcome the inflexible, explicit social roles when he or she attempts to develop and maintain friendships. During the primary school years this may not be a problem; however, during adolescence there are new social demands. The at-risk child is unable to deal with these new demands because of failure to develop the reflective processes and social knowledge required in the new social environment.

As a result of the inflexibility and immaturity of social interactions, the adolescent may increasingly deviate from normal social interaction. Poor social skills result in dysfunctional behavior, which in turn, promotes the continuing maladaption of social skills and knowledge. The child now has fewer opportunities to learn and develop the deficient skills. As other adolescents develop social skills on a higher cognitive level (such as reflective monitoring) the chronically lonely adolescent may continue to perform primarily at the lowest level of friendship. These children are rejected by others and are unable to experiment socially. Yet, even with social experimentation, the lack of monitoring would prohibit these children from benefiting from useful feedback.

Chronically lonely adolescents may seldom monitor their interactions with others or consider the effectiveness of social strategies in other groups. As a result, they may not actively seek out examples of appropriate behavior because they may not realize the ineffectiveness of their social strategies. Further, maladaptive cognitive processes may become manifest in inappropriate social interactions and result in emotional problems resulting from social rejection. Affective disorders manifest themselves in other cognitive-affective disorders. For example, deficient reflective monitoring and subsequent social rejection may negatively affect the development of feelings of efficacy and control in the social domain. Dweck (1981) states that children who are helpless are quicker to perceive rejection and to attribute it to factors beyond their control. Adolescents and children who believe that they have little control over their social interactions may have similar beliefs as adults. Thus, feelings of helplessness may occur throughout adulthood and be a secondary contributor to chronic loneliness.

Finally, chronically lonely adolescents often develop feelings of hostility and submissiveness (Moore, 1974), resulting in a cycle of anger and rejection. These cognitive and affective responses are not only due to the monitoring deficit, but to their maladaptive affective responses to social rejection and feelings of inadequacy. Maladaptive affect and behavior, then, produces a cycle of social rejection and, eventually, chronic loneliness.


An intervention program emphasizing reflective monitoring of the effectiveness of strategic behavior, in combination with social skills training, should provide the chronically lonely adolescent with the insight necessary to modify behavior and to initiate achievement in the social and cognitive area. Such a program has proved effective in improving conversational skills in lonely individuals (Kupke, Hobbes, Lavin, & Cheney, 1984). Chronically lonely adolescents need to understand explicit social strategies. A behavioral program alone is not sufficient to permanently change the behavior of the chronically lonely. The chronically lonely adolescent must develop reflective monitoring skills before any behavioral changes will be maintained or generalized. An intervention program that incorporates cognitive and behavioral components is suggested.

Specifically, explicit instructions and the rationale for social strategies (e.g., why it works, how it works), should be taught. These skills should be combined with the chance to develop and practice them. Role playing may be used to develop listening skills and appropriate social behavior. Behavioral training and direct instruction of perspective taking and positive interaction (Gottman et al., 1976; Oden & Asher, 1977) have all been effective in remediating loneliness in children. Similar training should be effective in adolescents.

1 Chronic loneliness, as it is discussed in this paper, may be distinguished from the epistemological loneliness suggested by Chandler (1975) to be a source of loneliness in adolescents. Epistemological loneliness may be the result of cognitive processes that exist during early adolescence. Unlike the adolescent experiencing epistemological loneliness, the chronically lonely adolescent may fail to cognitively mature. It is suggested that mature cognitive skills are necessary for mature social interaction, and that mature social interaction is defined as social interaction that is flexible and based on the demands of the situation and participants.


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Author:Carr, Martha; Schellenbach, Cynthia
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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