“Existential Isolation”: Why is it higher among men?

Humans are hyper-social. Everything we think, feel, and do is influenced by our social experiences. This is the case even when we are alone as past, current, and future social experiences and culture itself continue to shape us. 

What I am basically saying is there is no cognition, emotion or action independently of a social component for humans. That might sound like an extreme view, and maybe it is, but I honestly can’t imagine an argument that could counter it. 

Now, in the midst of this, many people, perhaps all people, feel to varying degrees as though their subjective experiences are not shared by other people.  In their minds what they think, see, feel is not what other people think, see, feel. This is perhaps best echoed in statements such as “I feel like I am living in a different universe to everyone else.”

This is why research on “I-sharing” – sharing a subjective experience with someone else – is so powerful. This work shows that this can improve relationships between members of different racial groups (e.g., less dehumanization and prejudice), and generally increase feelings of closeness with other people. What’s remarkable, I think, is that these shared experiences are often seemingly trivial, such as another participant in the study wanting to be a specific animal that you would want to be out of a list of four animals provided. Both want to be a turtle? Well dang, time to feel some social connection.

I-sharing is most powerful among people who feel existential isolation. And current research headed by Peter Helm at the University of Arizona shows that existential isolation tends to be stronger among men than women. But why?

These researchers first conducted a survey to test if this could be accounted for by gender differences in loneliness. This was not the case as the gender difference existed even when controlling for the influence of being lonely. 

Next, the researchers tested in a separate survey if valuing communal traits (e.g., kindness, warmth, empathy) was associated with less existential isolation. Further, the reason men had more existential isolation than women was because women tended to value communal traits more highly.

This work is consistent with a broad range of research showing that men are restricted in the range of emotions that are deemed socially acceptable (at least men tend to think this). Being warm, kind, and emotional really at all (except for anger) are not viewed by men as desirable traits (relative to for women). As such, men feel existential isolation, I presume, because they social norms impede their ability to connect with other people.

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