Loneliness is defined as a subjective experience of lack of connectedness, in terms of quantity or quality of social relations (Heinrich and Gullone 2006
). It can have severe negative consequences for both mental and physical health, including depression, suicidal ideation, aggression, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases (Cacioppo et al. 2015
), and even increases the risk for early mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015
). Previous research showed that loneliness and self-evaluations of social skills are negatively related (e.g., Segrin and Flora 2000
), but little is known about whether social skills evaluations from others may also be related to loneliness. For instance, it is still unknown whether lonely adolescents evaluate their social skills more positively or negatively than their peers do, and whether perceptions
of others’ evaluations (i.e., meta-evaluations) may have a larger impact on loneliness than others’ actual
evaluations. In addition, the studies that have examined the relationship between loneliness and social skills as reported by others have been conducted among children and adults, whereas few studies focused on adolescence (Qualter et al. 2015
). Research in this age group is needed because adolescence is a crucial period for both the development of social skills and loneliness.
During early adolescence, adolescents enter the complex world of social relations that is typical for this developmental period. Peers become increasingly important during early adolescence, as adolescents become part of a complex network of friendships (Brown and Klute 2006
). Moreover, peers play an important role in the development of social and emotional skills during adolescence (Steinberg and Morris 2001
). As such, early adolescents may be especially sensitive to develop loneliness compared to other age groups, and the link between social skills and loneliness seems particularly worthwhile to examine in this developmental period. Indeed, prevalence of loneliness in adolescence is high, with between 21 and 70 % of adolescents feeling lonely at least sometimes (Qualter et al. 2015
) and between 3 and 22 % of adolescents chronically experiencing loneliness (van Dulmen and Goossens 2013
). The goal of the present study was therefore to examine whether during early adolescence, loneliness was related to adolescents’ self-, peer-, and meta-evaluations of social skills, and whether discrepancies between these types of evaluations were related to loneliness.
Social skills can be defined as the ability to operate successfully in one’s social environment (Cillessen and Bellmore 2011
). Some researchers argue that loneliness is caused by a social skills deficit (Segrin and Flora 2000
). According to this theory, people with low social skills have difficulties interacting with others, which limits their opportunity to form and maintain satisfactory friendships with their peers, and thereby limiting the quantity of their social relations. Moreover, if people have low social skills, they may not be able to adequately cope with stressful life events by engaging their social network, leading to increased negative affect (Segrin 1999
). As such, quality of friendships may also be lower in people who have a social skills deficit. As both quantity and quality of social relations are related to loneliness in adolescence (Lodder et al. 2015
), a social skills deficit may thus cause feelings of loneliness. In addition, once loneliness is experienced, further problems with social skills may develop. Loneliness can cause withdrawal from social relations, which then limits opportunities for adolescents to further develop social skills (Qualter et al. 2015
). As such, problems with social skills may cause loneliness, and loneliness may be a maintaining factor for social skills problems.
Empirical studies have demonstrated that, across development, loneliness is related to lower self-reported social skills in different age groups (Qualter et al. 2015
), including adulthood (DiTommaso et al. 2003
) and mid-adolescence (Inderbitzen-Pisaruk et al. 1992
). Concerning ratings by others, research on adults shows that findings on the relationship between loneliness and conversational skills are mixed. Jones et al. (1981
) conducted several well-known studies on the relationship between loneliness and social skills, in which lonely adults were paired with others for a conversation. This research showed that, for ratings of conversation skills, lonely adults rated themselves negatively, expected negative ratings form their interaction partners, rated their interaction partners slightly negatively, but were not rated negatively by their interaction partners (Jones et al. 1981
). Additional research showed that lonely males, compared to females, were also rated negatively by their interaction partners (Jones et al. 1983
). Still, other research showed that loneliness was related to lower attention to interaction partners, and when lonely subjects were trained to pay more attention to their partner, their loneliness decreased (Jones et al. 1982
In children and adolescents, research on ratings of social skills by significant others is scarce, but indicates that increasing loneliness may be related to lower mother-reported social skills (Schinka et al. 2013
). In contrast, independent observers indicate that lonely as well as nonlonely children exhibit prosocial behaviors like initiating conversations, to which their peers respond well (Qualter and Munn 2005
). There is evidence to suggest that loneliness is related to withdrawn and shy behavior, which some researchers argue is a sign of poor social skills. Peer reports show that loneliness was related to social withdrawal in late childhood, (Boivin et al. 1995
), and to shyness in late adolescence (Woodhouse et al. 2012
), and peer rated social withdrawal predicts increases in loneliness from middle to late childhood over time (Jobe-Shields et al. 2011
). Finally, teacher and mother rated shyness was also related to loneliness in middle childhood (Coplan and Weeks 2010
). Overall, unlike the consistent findings for the relationship between loneliness and self-reported social skills, mixed evidence exists for a negative relationship between loneliness and other-reported social skills. This indicates that loneliness may be related to an objective social skills problem to some extent, but lonely individuals may subjectively experience a much larger social skills deficit.
Indeed, some researchers have argued that individuals’ own perceptions of social functioning (Vanhalst et al. 2013
), and anxiety about interactions (Solano and Koester 1989
) may be more strongly reflected in feelings of loneliness than their actual social skills, and may cause lonely individuals to “choke under the pressure” of social interactions (Knowles et al. 2015
). This could explain why interventions aimed to reduce loneliness by social skills training are usually not very effective, but interventions that address maladaptive cognitions are effective in reducing loneliness (Cacioppo et al. 2015
In line with the idea that maladaptive cognitions may be related to loneliness, some research suggests that loneliness is related to hypervigilance for rejection, causing lonely individuals to focus on negative information in the social environment (Cacioppo and Hawkley 2009
), which may lead to a biased negative view of the social environment (Qualter et al. 2013
). In line with this idea, earlier research showed loneliness was related to having a hostile attribution bias (Qualter et al. 2013
), and to a self-defeating attribution style in which social success is attributed to external factors and social failure to internal factors (Crick and Ladd 1993
). In addition, chronic loneliness is related to the tendency to attribute social exclusion to internal and stable factors, and social inclusion to unstable and external factors (Vanhalst et al. 2015
). Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that lonely adolescents may view the quality of their friendships more negatively than their friends do (Lodder et al. 2015
), and that they show greater negative affect tin response to negative company (van Roekel et al. 2014
). Overall, this pattern of findings indicates that lonely adolescents tend to negatively interpret the social environment, their relations, and their role in social relations. Possibly, this negative view does not only entail external social stimuli such as emotional expressions, but also a negative view of oneself, resulting in a negative bias towards one’s own social skills.
To examine whether loneliness is related to lower social skills, distorted negative perceptions of social skills, or both, it is necessary to compare views on social skills of adolescents themselves with others’ views on adolescents’ social skills. Researchers have argued that peer-observers may be most valuable when considering peer-related social skills, as these peers may respond to perceptions of low skills by rejecting the adolescent (Miers et al. 2011
). Indeed, earlier research showed that among socially anxious adolescents, peer-reports of social skills were more closely related to adolescents self-reports of social skills compared to social skills as reported by adult observers. We, therefore, decided to use peer-observers as an indication of others-evaluation. Lonely adolescents may have a negative view of their social skills due to an actual social skills deficit. If this were the case, we would expect that loneliness should be negatively related to others’ evaluations of adolescents’ social skills as well as self-reported social skills. Alternatively, according to the bias view, loneliness may be unrelated to others’ evaluations. Rather, loneliness may be related to a discrepancy between self- and meta-evaluations of social skills on the one hand, and peer-evaluations of social skills on the other hand. Earlier research did indicate that self-, peer-, and meta-evaluations of social skills might be related to loneliness, but discrepancies between these types of evaluations have never been examined (e.g., Jones et al. 1981
). The comparison of self- and meta-evaluations with peer-evaluations of social skills allows us to examine loneliness in relation to over
, which occurs when lonely individuals think that others evaluate them more positively and rate themselves more positively than others actually do, and under
, which occurs when lonely individuals think others evaluate them more negatively and rate themselves more negatively than others do. This comparison is relevant, because based on the bias view of loneliness, we would expect that lonely adolescents underestimate how others evaluate their social skills (Qualter et al. 2013
A biased perception of social skills becomes apparent in the direction
of the discrepancy between self- or meta-evaluations and peer-evaluation of social skills. Recent studies have suggested that the size
of the discrepancies between informants’ evaluations of behavior may have a unique effect on various outcomes, beyond the main effects of the individual informants’ evaluations (De Los Reyes 2011
), for instance, on aggression (Brendgen et al. 2004
) and depression (Ehrlich et al. 2014
). As of yet, no studies have examined the possible relationship between loneliness and informant discrepancies, which is important because the bias hypothesis implies discrepancies between perceived and actual social functioning (Qualter et al. 2013
Loneliness is a prominent problem in early adolescence (van Dulmen and Goossens 2013
). Earlier research indicated that loneliness is related to self-reported social skills (e.g., DiTommaso et al. 2003
). Yet, it is unclear why loneliness may be related to self-reported social skills. According to the social skills deficit view (Segrin and Flora 2000
), lonely adolescents may report lower social skills because they actually have lower social skills. Low social skills may limit opportunities to form and maintain friendships, both in terms of quality and in terms of quantity, thereby leading to social isolation and in turn to loneliness. In contrast, the bias view on loneliness states that lonely adolescents negatively interpret their social environment (Qualter et al. 2013
). According to this view, lonely adolescents may report that they have low social skills, because they negatively interpret their own functioning in their social environment. Because most studies have not reported loneliness in relation to social skills as reported by others, it is difficult to determine whether lonely adolescents’ views reflect the views of their environment or not. The goal of the present study was to examine whether loneliness in adolescence is related to social skills as reported by adolescents themselves and their peers, and to ideas adolescents have about how their peers evaluate them (meta-evaluations). In addition, we examined whether discrepancies between self, peer-, and meta-evaluations of social skills were related to loneliness.
Our results indicated that loneliness was uniquely related to both self-, peer- and meta-evaluations of social skills. For each evaluation pair, we found that, if evaluations were in agreement, reports of poorer social skills were related to stronger feelings of loneliness. In addition, higher levels of loneliness were reported when a discrepancy between self- and peer-evaluations of social skills was present, but it did not matter whether self-evaluations were more negative than peer-evaluations or vice versa. Our findings are in line with both the notion that loneliness relates to poorer social skills (Segrin and Flora 2000
), and the notion that loneliness relates to a biased perception of social skills (Qualter et al. 2013
). Yet, our results should be interpreted with care as we cannot draw conclusions about causality in the relationship between loneliness and social skills.
In line with the social skills deficit view, our findings indicate that loneliness is negatively related to peer-evaluations of social skills after taking into account the multivariate effects of self-evaluations and meta-evaluations of social skills. Thus, contrary to earlier findings regarding social status (Vanhalst et al. 2013
), our results indicated that it is not just adolescents’ perception of their own social skills (i.e., self-evaluations) or perceptions of how others evaluate them (i.e., meta-evaluations) that are related to loneliness. Rather, some lonely adolescents are evaluated negatively by their peers. In line with this, our findings indicated that, if self- and peer-evaluations of social skills were in agreement, negative evaluations were related to a greater sense of loneliness. Thus, when adolescents have a realistic and negative view of their social skills, they may be lonelier, or vice versa.
In line with the bias hypothesis, we found that discrepancies between self-and peer-evaluations of social skills were related to loneliness. Thus, if adolescents thought that they had better or poorer social skills compared to how they were evaluated by their peers, they were lonelier. The finding that adolescents may be lonelier if they evaluate themselves more negatively than their peers could reflect the fact that some lonely adolescents have a biased negative perception of their own social skills, in line with what was suggested in earlier research (Qualter et al. 2013
). However, we found no evidence for a discrepancy between meta- and peer-evaluations, which would have indicated an overall biased negative perception. Alternatively, the self-peer discrepancy could reflect the fact that peers evaluate adolescents in the school context, whereas the adolescents may consider their skills in a broader context. Especially if lonely adolescents indeed tend to withdraw from social interactions (Qualter et al. 2015
), their peers may not have a nuanced view of lonely adolescents’ skills. Future research could therefore expand the present research by including reports on social skills by other informants, such as friends or mothers.
Unexpectedly, we found that when they reported that their social skills were better than what was reported by their peers, adolescents were also lonelier. Possibly, some lonely adolescents think that they have appropriate social skills because they know how to act in social situations, but they are unable to apply this knowledge in actual social situations. This idea is in line with the social monitor theory (Gardner et al. 2005
), and recent research suggested that lonely people may have appropriate social skills in terms of knowing how to act in social situations, but choke under the pressure of actual social situations (Knowles et al. 2015
). Additionally, peers might reject classmates whom they believe have poor social skills, resulting in social isolation of the adolescent and consequently in feelings of loneliness, even if adolescents themselves believe that this negative evaluation is unfounded. Alternatively, the discrepancy between self- and peer-evaluations of social skills may represent a mismatch between adolescents and their environments. Earlier research suggested that informant discrepancies may have an effect on problem behavior beyond the effects of the individual informant (De Los Reyes 2011
). This mismatch may cause loneliness, or loneliness may cause a mismatch with the environment. Future research could explore this possibility by examining loneliness in relation to self-peer discrepancies for other constructs such as social interests and general world view. Moreover, future research could incorporate objective measures of social skills in multiple settings, to examine whether the views of adolescents and their peers reflect actual social skills.
Our study was the first to not only look at the unique effects of self-, peer- and meta-evaluations of social skills on loneliness, but also at the discrepancies between each of these types of evaluations. This allowed us to examine whether the negative relationship between loneliness and self-reported social skills that was found in earlier research (e.g., DiTommaso et al. 2003
) was also reflected in social skills evaluations of peers, or whether only lonely adolescents themselves report poor social skills. Another strength of the present study was that we used a powerful method, which allowed us to overcome the shortcomings of difference scores and provided greater insight into the interplay between self- peer-, and meta-evaluations of social skills in relationship to loneliness (Edwards 2002
). In addition, we used a round-robin design to measure peer-evaluations, which resulted in a more detailed measure of peer-evaluations compared to nomination procedures.
This study also had a few limitations. One limitation of the present study is that we used a general measure of meta-evaluations of social skills, rather than a round robin design with meta-evaluations for each individual classmate. Future research could incorporate such an individualized design, which would also allow scholars to examine meta- and peer-evaluations for specific types of classmates such as friends, bullies, or popular peers. Another limitation is that our study was correlational, which makes it impossible to determine whether loneliness is a cause or consequence of poor social skills, and discrepancies between self- and peer-evaluations of social skills. A third limitation is that we focused mainly on pro-social skills, and utilized a global behavioral trait approach to social skills (cf., Dirks et al. 2007
). Future research could benefit from utilizing other measures of social skills, such as situation-based measurements (Dirks et al. 2007
). The use of such a measure also decreases the likelihood that adolescents rate their own social skills in a broader context, whereas they rate the skills of their peers only related to the school context. In addition, besides prosocial behavior, social skills include a wide range of traits and behaviors (McFall 1982
). Future research could examine discrepancies between informant reports on other social skills that have been related to loneliness, including withdrawn behavior (Qualter et al. 2015
) and negative behavioral tendencies such as aggression, narcissism, and Machiavellianism (Zhang et al. 2015
). A final limitation of the present study is that we used self-reported measures for loneliness, self-evaluations, and meta-evaluations, which causes shared method variance. We believe that self-reports are necessary, because loneliness, self-evaluations, and meta-evaluations are each subjective in nature. Nevertheless, future research could explore the effects of self-, meta-, and peer-evaluations of social skills on other measures, such as peer-reported loneliness (i.e., social isolation).