Social isolation

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Child in accommodation for asylum seekers

The term social isolation is used in social psychology , sociology and social work to describe the life situation of people who have little social contact with other people. Depending on how far the average level of contact is undercut, which is considered normal within a person's demographic reference group, social isolation can have a considerable psychological illness value. However, such an attribution of the disease is not mandatory: As a sociological category, social isolation can exist in a specific case without the person concerned perceiving this subjectively as a deficiency.

In order to make this difference between the objective fact of social isolation and the subjective assessment by those affected conceptually clear, social isolation is often contrasted with the feeling of loneliness : A person is considered to be lonely if the number and intensity of their social contacts are inadequate suffers from this lack. It is quite possible that a person subjectively suffers from loneliness, although according to objective standards he has a sufficient number of social contacts.

Numerous factors can contribute to the development of social isolation, some of which are interrelated and can mutually reinforce one another. Almost all of these factors revolve around the question of how they affect a person's ability to participate in social life. The reason for this approach is that such participation is an essential prerequisite for being able to establish social contacts. A distinction must be made between exogenous factors (in the sense of belonging to a social risk group) and endogenous factors that can be attributed to the personality structure of the individual.

Social risk groups

Loneliness is caused socially ( exogenously ) and is, to that extent, also a field of sociology . Above all, the anomie is described here as a social (not a psychological) consequence of isolation . For almost all of the groups listed here, isolation that can be ascertained in relation to society as a whole can be subjectively alleviated if the respective group is numerically so strong that it can function as a sub-society itself. Within such a sub-society, there can even be a particularly intensive social exchange that is quite satisfactory for the members of the group. Of course, this does not change anything in the continued isolation from society as a whole. Individual social groups of the isolated can be named:


Elderly people run the risk of losing touch with their social environment due to the age-related dissolution of the social conditions under which they have lived for decades . These processes of dissolution include retirement from professional life, the loss of a partner, declining physical performance and the associated restrictions on active participation in social life and, last but not least, the experience of the gradual thinning of one's own generation.

The level of support from other people for an elderly person's primary caregiver depends on the social network in which they both live. Litwin and Landau differentiate between four types of social networks for people over 75:

  • Network with diffuse connections (approx. 42 percent), composed in a similar way to the relatives' network (see below), consisting of around eleven people with mostly loose relationships
  • Friends-centered network (approx. 28 percent) with approx. nine people (almost half friends) and rather casual relationships
  • Relatives network (approx. 22 percent), consisting of an average of up to ten people, mostly relatives and children, characterized by very close relationships
  • Family-intensive network (approx. 8 percent) with an average of four people (almost exclusively children), characterized by less close relationships

Results of the German Aging Survey (DEAS) 2017 indicate an increasing risk of social isolation among women and men as they age. For both sexes, the risk of social isolation at the age of 40 is around four percent. In contrast, the risk increases to around 22 percent at the age of 90. Differences between the sexes can also be observed in this context. While women between 40 and 80 years of age have a lower risk of being socially isolated than men, they are more at risk of being over 80 years of age.


Many students find themselves in an isolated situation, especially at the beginning of their studies. The start of studies is often associated with a change of place of residence, so that connections to previous friends and acquaintances are difficult or even break off. Likewise, when you move out of your parents' house, the feeling of being able to call at a safe haven at any time, where you can find protection and care, ends. After all, the new role as a student places high demands on the individual to organize their own life and to assert themselves in the network of initially unknown institutions.

single parent

Single parents in employment are due to the double burden of employment and education performance often claimed to such a great extent that time and personal energy hardly sufficient for adequate participation in social life. In addition, the requirements associated with parenting often mean that only a part-time position can be filled. This in turn means that the household income may also be too low to be able to participate in social life.


Depending on the investigation methods, criminal prosecutors run the risk of becoming socially isolated. During the investigation , the persecuted person may lose their social environment, which results from suspicion of a criminal offense. The convicted person can also isolate himself socially, especially if he is being persecuted innocently and the presumption of innocence is reversed. If the principle of proportionality is not observed in criminal prosecution, this can result in enormous psychosocial and social damage for the persecuted.


Prisoners are rigorously excluded from participating in social life. However, the extreme situation of confinement enforced by state violence can lead to the development of a microcosm within the prison in which its own rules are formed. Under these conditions, social isolation can be imagined on the one hand as the inability (or the lack of will) of the individual to fit into the applicable norms of this microcosm, but on the other hand as a problem with reintegration into society after serving imprisonment. (See also Total Institution , Solitary Confinement .)

Foreigners / Migrants

People from foreign countries have often grown up under conditions that are radically different from those that are considered normal in the host society. Religious imprints, social role models (for example between man and woman, old and young, etc.), the importance of social relationships or the family can differ so widely that the immigrants cannot be integrated into the host society. In addition, migrants often have to assert themselves against the often considerable resentment of the population, so that participation in social life has to be fought for, if it succeeds at all. Another problem is a lack of linguistic understanding, which makes integration possible.

Refugees who do not speak the language of the respective country withdraw into loneliness due to the existing language barrier. Although they would like to have social contacts, they cannot establish themselves because communication is not possible. This type of isolation can lead to crime and mental illness such as neurosis and psychosis.

The chronically ill and disabled

Sick and handicapped people are often seen by their environment as limited in their performance and thus do not meet the expectations of a performance-oriented society of western character. In addition, illness and disability can cause restrictions in mobility and sensory perception , which makes it difficult to participate in social life. Examples : Skin diseases can lead to other people avoiding you; one cannot take part in conversations because of a hearing impairment ; Autism suppresses the desire or the ability to come into contact with other people or to independently maintain contacts with the help of others; in people with schizophrenia or a so-called schizophrenic disease, the path to social contacts and their maintenance can also be difficult to walk and social phobias by their very nature lead to social isolation.


The unemployed have long ceased to be a fringe group in western industrial societies. However, due to the prevailing value system , they are still considered to be people who, at least temporarily, do not meet the social expectation of a life oriented towards gainful employment and are therefore perceived as outsiders. Very often those affected have internalized this value system so much that they feel like failures and stay away from public life out of shame. This tendency is exacerbated by the worsening material situation associated with unemployment. The role ascribed to outsiders is moreover objectively justified insofar as the loss of the job is also connected with the sudden loss of the often intensive social contacts with colleagues at work.


Highly gifted people (especially schoolchildren ) experience that their abilities, even though they are assessed neutrally positively, are perceived or assessed negatively by the (school and friendly) environment. This can lead to rejection of the person with correspondingly strong isolation within the social environment (see also nerd ). In addition, highly gifted people often find contact with people who do not act at a nearly high level (think, communicate, act) as tiring or unsatisfactory and sometimes voluntarily choose a more or less strong isolation.

Endogenous factors

What the endogenous factors have in common is the fact that they increasingly solidify with continued isolation, since the ability to relativize and adequately assess one's own experiences and external events is lacking, precisely because of the lack of social experience. This creates the risk that the isolated person, through their distorted perception, maneuvers himself into a position in which breaking out of isolation on his own is virtually impossible. The isolated person develops a self-contained, hermetic self-image that is decoupled from social reality and can lead to modes of action and behavior that, to a certain extent, become independent in relation to social feedback: the normal social control circuit, in which one's own actions are based on the reactions of the environment is measured and corrected or adjusted if necessary is broken in severe cases of social isolation. This also applies to personality structures that appear to be the opposite of what is usually referred to as social competence or self-confidence: Self-confident people are characterized by the fact that they develop a certain claim with regard to their social needs, that they are able to openly accept these claims formulate, and have the ability to use suitable means to enforce their claims.

Negative self-image

Lack of self-esteem makes people doubt that others might perceive them as valuable, pleasant, or otherwise positive. With mental anticipation of threatened rejection, such persons do not even attempt to check their negative assessments through practical experience ( self-fulfilling prophecy ).

Inappropriate generalization of specific social experiences

The lack of social experience leads to people living in isolation overestimating the generality of individual, randomly occurring negative events. In addition, there is a tendency to ignore the special circumstances of an actually existing isolation situation and replace them with the view that one generally does not fit into social contexts.

Selectively negative perception

People living in isolation develop patterns of perception in which negative experiences are increasingly processed, while positive events are systematically ignored. The subjective experience of one's own role in the social environment is therefore that of a sequence of failures and rejections. Fear of failure and the general expectation of calamity lead to increased withdrawal from social space.

Specific attribution patterns

People living in isolation tend to develop (pseudo-) explanations for their isolation, the common pattern of which is that the unsatisfactory and perceived as painful social experiences are always ascribed to negative characteristics of their own personality (internal attribution) - for example, lack of attractiveness or amiability . The person who feels rejected and rejected by society provides precisely this society with the arguments why it is “right” to signal rejection and rejection. The idea that the reasons for the failure of social interaction could also lie in the other person or in the circumstances of the situation (external attribution) can often no longer be conveyed to a chronically isolated person.

Exogenous factors

In addition to the endogenous factors and social risk groups listed, exogenous factors also play a major role in relation to the individual. In addition to unemployment, this includes all forms of social exclusion.

In the case of bullying , perpetrators use indirect exclusive methods such as isolating the victim. It is estimated that around 2.7% of the workforce in Germany are affected. In school bullying, teaching staff should not focus solely on the perpetrators, but should also work with the victims.

Methodical approaches

In his study, Wichard Puls developed a complex model of influencing factors and their relationships with one another, which work towards the development of social isolation and whose central component is the lack of social competence . This deficiency is encouraged by

  • Personality traits (tendency to neurotic and psychotic behavior, introversion )
  • Disorders in the child's development process (see attachment theory )
  • demographic factors (low income, poor schooling)
  • negative behavior of the interaction partners in two or small groups
  • social competitiveness
  • unemployment

The lack of social skills, in turn, is the cause of negative social experiences:

  • negative behavior of the interaction partners in two or small groups (reinforcing feedback on one of the causes of a lack of social competence!)
  • Unsuccessfulness in two-way relationships
  • poor reputation within small groups

Together with a few other factors, this already constitutes social isolation. If this fact is also subjectively experienced as loneliness , then the feelings of loneliness have an additional reinforcing factor on the negative behavior of the interaction partners. In severe cases, feelings of loneliness are the trigger for further complications such as the development of depression or addiction (especially alcoholism ), which in turn have a negative effect on the central factor of insufficient social competence. Through these multiple feedbacks in the process of causation of social isolation, a kind of spiral of isolation develops from which those affected can usually no longer escape on their own.

General problem

While the listed exogenous factors can usually be determined by simply ascertaining facts about the external life situation, checking the endogenous factors is much more difficult: On the one hand, it is obvious that mental constructs such as the self-image that a person constructs of himself is more difficult to be inquired about are obvious facts. On the other hand, questions that aim at isolation and loneliness touch the highly sensitive area of ​​human appreciation, so that both a generally low willingness to answer and a difficult-to-interpret mixture of nicely colored answers in the sense of social desirability on the one hand and unrealistic negative assessments on the other hand. In addition, the above statements show that the self-assessment with regard to social isolation can be completely detached from the externally ascertainable, objectifiable factors. For this reason, for example, the attempt to determine the degree of isolation of a person through additional questioning of third parties usually only offers limited possibilities for knowledge.

UCLA Loneliness Scale

The most common empirical instrument for determining the subjectively perceived social isolation is the questionnaire known as the " UCLA Loneliness Scale ". It contains 20 statements, to which the test subject responds by choosing an answer on a four-point scale (never, rarely, sometimes, often). Examples of such statements are for example “I feel ignored”, “Nobody knows me really well” or “There are people I can turn to at any time”.

See also


  • Gerhard W. Lauth , Peter Viebahn (Ed.): Social isolation. Causes and Intervention Options . Psychologie-Verlags-Union, Munich / Weinheim 1987, ISBN 3-621-27034-5 .
  • H. Litwin, R. Landau: Social Network Type and Social Support Among the Old-Old. In: Journal of Aging Studies. 14th vol., 2000, pp. 213-228.
  • Wichard Puls: Social isolation and loneliness. Approaches to an empirical-nomological theory . German University Press, Wiesbaden 1989.
  • D. Russell, LA Peplau, CE Cutrona: The revised UCLA Loneliness Scale. Concurrent and discriminant validity evidence. In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 39, 1980, pp. 472-480.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Oliver Huxhold, Heribert Engstler: Social isolation and loneliness in women and men in the second half of life . In: Claudia Vogel, Markus Wettstein, Clemens Tesch-Römer (eds.): Women and men in the second half of life. Getting older in the face of social change . tape 1 . Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2019, ISBN 978-3-658-25079-9 , pp. 71-91 .
  2. Bärbel Meschkutat, Martina Stackelbeck, Georg Langenhoff: The Mobbing Report - Representative Study for the Federal Republic of Germany (PDF; 614 kB) . Wirtschaftsverlag NW, Dortmund 2002, ISBN 3-89701-822-5 , pp. 23-24.
  3. Christoph Burger, Dagmar Strohmeier, Nina Spröber, Sheri Bauman, Ken Rigby: How teachers respond to school bullying: An examination of self-reported intervention strategy use, moderator effects, and concurrent use of multiple strategies . In: Teaching and Teacher Education . tape 51 , October 1, 2015, p. 191-202 , doi : 10.1016 / j.tate.2015.07.004 ( [accessed August 3, 2016]).
  4. ^ D. Russell, LA Peplau, CE Cutrona: The revised UCLA Loneliness Scale. Concurrent and discriminant validity evidence. In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 39, 1980, pp. 472-480.