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Maintaining a Sense of Belonging among the Socially Isolated

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Principal Investigator(s):

Megan L. Knowles
Franklin & Marshall College
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Wendi L. Gardner
Northwestern University
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Sample size: 412
Field period: 05/26/2005 - 06/01/2005


People are driven to form and maintain positive, long-lasting bonds with others in order to circumvent the negative consequences associated with social isolation. When individuals do not have the opportunity to form new relationships, they can regain a sense of connection using more indirect means. We argued that socially isolated individuals may fulfill their need to belong by inflating past group attachments, judging their own groups as being especially cohesive and meaningful, and forming nontraditional attachments (e.g., parasocial attachments with favorite television characters). Moreover, these indirect strategies should be most evident among the most isolated individuals -those who have relatively few opportunities to meet new people and form relationships (e.g., housewives, retired persons, widows, widowers). Thus, we expected to find more use of these indirect strategies among the broader US population than among the relatively socially immersed college student population.


First, we predicted that in contrast to individuals made to feel socially embedded, those made to feel socially isolated would judge past group experiences to be especially successful and attribute their success to teamwork rather than individual efforts, thus strengthening their social attachments. Second, we predicted that in contrast to individuals made to feel socially embedded, individuals made to feel isolated would inflate their group attachments by judging their groups to be meaningful and cohesive entities. Third, we expected that some individuals (e.g., those who live alone) would respond to the social isolation manipulation with enhanced parasocial attachments.

Experimental Manipulations:

Subjective social connection was manipulated by implying that individuals have more close friends than the average respondent or fewer close friends than the average respondent. All individuals reported the number of close friends that they have currently. In the subsequent pie chart (the manipulation), everyone saw the percentage of respondents who ostensibly fall into the categories of "socially isolated", "weakly connected", "moderately connected", and "socially embedded". Category criteria differed as a function of condition. For example, those in the subjective social isolation condition saw that the average respondent listed between 11-15 close friends, that only 5% (labeled "socially isolated") listed 5 or fewer close friends, and that those who listed between 6-10 were labeled "weakly connected". In contrast, those in the subjective social integration condition saw that the average respondent listed 2 close friends, and that only the most socially embedded group listed 3 or more. Thus, individuals' responses to the previous open response question should have made them seem either socially isolated or socially embedded as compared to the general population.

Key Dependent Variables:

After exposure to the manipulation of subjective social connection, individuals completed questions measuring attachment-enhancing tendencies, their subjective social isolation, and well-being. Regarding individuals' tendencies to enhance social attachments, three sets of items were be included. First, individuals reported their attachment to their favorite television character using the Parasocial Interaction Scale (Rubin, et al., 1985). Second, individuals rated the extent to which collections of individuals to which they belong (internet users, residents of their state) form a meaningful group. Third, individuals were asked to about a past group task, rate the extent to which it was successful, and report the extent to which the group's outcome was due to individual efforts or teamwork.

Additional Information:

The order of the dependent measures was counterbalanced.

Summary of Findings:

In contrast to respondents in the social integration condition, those in the social isolation condition recalled significantly more successful group experiences. Respondents in both conditions, however, attributed success to teamwork more so than individual efforts. Regarding respondents' perceptions of group meaningfulness, no significant findings emerged, but the pattern of data suggests that respondents in the social integration condition considered their groups to be more meaningful that those in the social isolation condition. Whereas neither condition nor living situation (i.e., alone or with others) predicted respondents' attachment to their favorite television characters, gender, age, and self-reported belonging needs significantly predicted attachment strength. Women, older respondents, and those reporting a strong need to belong were more likely to report attachments to TV characters than men, younger respondents and those with low belonging needs.


Our pattern of findings suggests that individuals may utilize indirect strategies (e.g., group enhancement) to regain a sense of connection after experiencing a social threat. However, further inspection of the data reveals that individual measures of social isolation (e.g., number of close friends) were better predictors of these strategies than our subjective social isolation manipulation. We suspect that this manipulation was too subtle and failed to sufficiently affect respondents' perceived inclusionary status. In line with previous research and the overall trends revealed in this study, we would expect that a more powerful social threat such as a real life rejection would elicit the usage of these indirect strategies of belonging regulation.


Knowles, M. L. and W. L. Gardner. 2006. Parasocial "Friendships" among Individuals with Dispositionally High Belonging Needs. Poster presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

Molden, Daniel C., Gale M. Lucas, Wendi L. Gardner, Kristy Dean, and Megan L. Knowles. 2009. Motivations for prevention or promotion following social exclusion: Being rejected versus being ignored. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96:415-431. doi: 10.1037/a0012958

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