Projecting loneliness into the past and future: implications for self-esteem and affect

Abstract

Loneliness reflects a threat to people’s need to belong in close relationships, and is associated with lower self-esteem and emotional distress. The current 2-week daily diary study examined memory and prospection, or future oriented thinking, as potential mediators of these psychological responses to loneliness. Results suggest that daily loneliness biased people’s memories of inclusion that occurred yesterday and predictions of inclusion that will occur tomorrow and in the general future. People remembered more exclusion in the past and expected more exclusion in the future on days they felt lonely, independently of whether they actually were or would be excluded. Relative to memories, predictions of future exclusion appeared to be more biased by current loneliness and less accurate. In turn, biases involving predictions of future exclusion mediated effects of loneliness on daily self-esteem and positive affect, but not negative affect, suggesting that experiences of loneliness are associated with lower psychological well-being (i.e., lower self-esteem and reduced positive affect) partly because people tend to project those experiences into the future. Biases involving memories of past inclusion did not mediate the effects of daily loneliness on these outcomes. Both memories and forecasts of inclusion mediated the effects of trait loneliness on self-esteem and positive affect but not negative affect, suggesting that chronically lonely people may experience lower self-esteem and fewer positive emotions, in part, because of their tendencies to predict and remember social exclusion. Implications of these findings for understanding psychological responses to belongingness threats are discussed.

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Appendix

The trait measures included in this research were part of a larger intake questionnaire completed during a lab session. The questionnaire included measures of self-image goals and their triggers, avoidance goals and communal goals, desire to be valued by others, perceptions of others’ appraisal of the self, lay theories about the relationship between helpful behavior and interpersonal benefits, received and enacted prosocial behaviors, perceptions of and desire for interpersonal value and lay theories about loneliness. Furthermore, the intake questionnaire included a number of measures of sexual desire and related measures such as sexual narcissism and self-objectification, as well as measures of emotions and behaviors related to a remembered guilt-inducing incident including a scale assessing trait guilt. Finally, measures of relationship well-being, optimism, and attachment anxiety and avoidance were included. All measures including the ones used in the study were presented in a random order.

Daily questionnaires included the measures for this study, in addition to measures that are not relevant to this investigation including daily self-image goals and self-image goal triggers, daily perceptions of received and given support to others and daily reported pursuit of and perceptions of one’s sexual value. All daily measures including the ones included in this study were presented in random order.

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Teneva, N., Lemay, E.P. Projecting loneliness into the past and future: implications for self-esteem and affect. Motiv Emot (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-020-09842-6

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Keywords

  • Loneliness
  • Exclusion
  • Prospection
  • Memory
  • Bias