Tribute account for miWatch432 pioneer of lurking
- Feb 19, 2022
- 85d 22h 14m
- Published: 02 February 2023
One is the loneliest number: Involuntary celibacy (incel), mental health, and loneliness
- Brandon Sparks,
- Alexandra M. Zidenberg &
- Mark E. Olver
Current Psychology (2023)
AbstractIncels—a ragtag collection of young males who have rallied around their shared experience of romantic rejection—have slowly emerged as an online group of interest to researchers, no doubt as a result of several high-profile attacks. Much of this work has centered around incels’ dating experiences, sexual attitudes, and online forums. However, it is possible that their moniker, short for involuntary celibate, has resulted in an overemphasis on their sexual exclusion and frustration. Recent work has identified social isolation as a key aspect of inceldom, which may help explain why incels have responded negatively to romantic rejection. The present study thus sought to examine the role of social support and loneliness in experiences of rejection in a sample of incel (n = 67) and non-incel (n = 103) men. Results indicated that incels experience more feelings of loneliness and less social supports than non-incel men. Both of these variables were associated with multiple mental and relational health issues that incels also scored more highly on. Further, incels reported using more solitary and problematic coping mechanisms. These results suggest that incels may be missing a key buffer in sheltering them from the adverse effects of romantic rejection. It also extends previous findings highlighting the importance of attachment styles in differentiating incels from non-incels, which may perpetuate feelings of isolation. Implications for how this may relate to incel discourse and clinical interventions are discussed.
IntroductionSince 2014, there have been several violent incidents committed by involuntary celibates which have claimed the lives of nearly fifty people (Hoffman et al., 2020). One of the most noteworthy attacks took place on April 23, 2018, when Alek Minassian drove a rental van through downtown Toronto, killing ten people and injuring sixteen others (Mandel, 2018). Minassian paid homage to fellow incel (a portmanteau of involuntary celibate), Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and himself during a series of violent attacks in Isla Vista, California in 2014 (Duke, 2014). On the one hand, Rodger has been heralded as a martyr and the “supreme gentleman” of the incel community for the attack and the dissemination of his manifesto, in which he framed his violence as “retribution” for women having denied him the opportunity to have sex (Byerly, 2020; Jaki et al., 2019; Mandel, 2018). On the other hand, incel endorsement of Rodger and other incels who have engaged in public acts of violence is relatively low (Moskalenko et al., 2022; Speckhard et al., 2021).
This lack of sexual experience is, as their name suggests, one of the hallmarks of the involuntary celibacy community. However, the meaning of the term incel has changed drastically since it entered the public vernacular in the late 1990’s when a woman named Alana began a website for people who struggled to form romantic or sexual relations (Alana, 1997; Kassam, 2018). Today, incel has become synonymous with angry young men who seek refuge in anti-feminist online forums where they can espouse their misogynistic beliefs steeped in sexual entitlement and biological determinism (Ging, 2019; Hoffman et al., 2020; Maxwell et al., 2020). The twisted ideology behind the attacks combined with the accessible nature of most incel forums has generated considerable media and, later, research coverage. While the news coverage of incel-perpetrated violence is largely sensational, Byerly’s (2020) analysis of 70 news articles—which spanned 29 outlets in six countries—suggests that the content is an accurate portrayal of incel behaviours, ideologies, and the community as a whole. Indeed, Byerly’s claim that online communities promote of violence and misogyny is supported across multiple content analyses of several incel forums (Baele et al., 2021; Jaki et al., 2019; Maxwell et al., 2020; O’Malley et al., 2020).
That increased attention is being directed toward the incel community is promising. So, too, is Byerly’s (2020) finding that many of the journalists adopted a feminist approach in their coverage of incel violence, calling out the vitriolic attitudes that drove the behaviour. The sexual entitlement expressed by incels is extremely concerning given its natural extension to female subjugation and the bevy of research linking such expectations to violent reactions when they are not met (Blake et al., 2018; DeLecce et al., 2017). Emerging evidence even suggests that these effects can be heightened in men who are high in social dominance orientation, a measure of support for group-based hierarchies which is congruent with incel ideologies of re-establishing male social dominance (Ging, 2019; Jones, 2020; Kelly et al., 2015; Woerner et al., 2018). While misogyny and sexual rejection have understandably formed the bulk of the narratives surrounding incels, often lost in these discussions is that incels are not—despite their name—exclusively rejected sexually; rather, sexual rejection is just one of many forms of social exclusion that they experience.
Loneliness and social isolationIn 2018, the moderators of incels.me (now incels.co) conducted a poll in which roughly 300 incels participated. When asked if they had friends, only one-third of the 294 respondents indicated that they did (Jeltsen, 2018). A lack of stable friendships has also been noted in the manifestos of Rodger and Chris Harper-Mercer, a lesser-known incel whose mass shooting was one of the deadliest in Oregon’s history (Flaccus, 2017; Rodger, 2014). In the opening of his manifesto, Harper-Mercer (2015) summed up his life as “one lonely enterprise… with no friends” (p. 1). Feelings of isolation resulting from a lack of friends (among other things) are common discussion topics among incels. A recent textual analysis of 100 discussion threads on the incels.me forum identified loneliness as one of the top 1,000 keywords, with the authors concluding that this constitutes a core aspect of inceldom (Jaki et al., 2019). This may help explain why only 18% of incels in Sparks et al. (2022) reported having pictures with friends in their dating application profile compared to 52% of non-incel men. In fact, this was the only photo category that evidenced a sizeable difference between the groups in the study.
Further analyses lend credence to the magnitude of this issue. A thematic content analysis of 834 posts in the r/Braincels subreddit identified social isolation as one of the overarching themes (Maxwell et al., 2020). Many incels lamented that they are misunderstood and unfairly labelled as sex-hungry when they also seek friendship and general social inclusion. One commenter clarified:
This desire for a “genuine emotional bond” appears to stand in stark contrast to the misanthropic and indeed violent ideology that is espoused by the incel community. Yet incels are so distraught by their social isolation that they experience suicidal thoughts and question whether they would be missed if they acted on them (Maxwell et al., 2020). Jones’ (2020) own qualitative analysis of incel posts found that discussion of isolation is nested in broader conversations of depression—with self- and formal diagnoses being considerably higher in the incel community compared to the general population; see Moskalenko et al., 2022). In Jones’ (2020) work, one user noted that depression is a “natural state for ugly people [i.e., incels]” (p. 65). When incels discussed how they coped with their depressive feelings, the mechanisms (e.g., studying, reading, watching TV, lifting weights) were almost exclusively solitary, which Jones (2020) commented may exacerbate their feelings of depression and loneliness. Interestingly, several users in Maxwell et al. (2020) analysis expressed gratitude for the incel community and its role in facilitating social connections while also serving as a place to express their frustrations and support one another.“incels aren’t just after sex… what they really want is affection and a genuine emotional bond. Some say that they wouldn’t care about sex as long as they could experience love. Some even say that they would be happy if they could just have platonic love instead of romantic love (some incels have very few friends or none at all).” (p. 1864).
The exclusion and loneliness experienced by incels is viewed as an extension of the looks-based hierarchy on which they believe society operates (Jones, 2020; Maxwell et al., 2020). Thus, the lookism principles apply not only to their ability to attract mates, but also friends. Similarly, their social anxiety and supposed autism is frequently listed as one of the causes for incels’ romantic and social isolation (Jaki et al., 2019). Further, forty percent of the incels in the above incels.me poll specifically identified autism or other similar conditions as contributing to their isolation (ADL, 2020). While incels frequently use autism as a catch-all term for social shyness or awkwardness—and thus estimates of autism with this community should be taken rather cautiously—a recent survey indicated that 18% of incels have a formal diagnosis of autism (more than double the rate among the general population; Moskalenko et al., 2022). This was dwarfed by the 74% who were self-diagnosed with autism, suggesting either professional underdiagnosis among this population or self-overdiagnosis among incels. Regardless, what is concerning is not the cause of incels’ social isolation, but rather, its consequences (Baele et al., 2021; Jaki et al., 2019; Williams & Arntfield, 2020).
If incels are experiencing general social isolation, it may be exacerbating a number of mental and relational health issues that appear to be prominent in this community. Incels report greater rejection sensitivity and proneness to interpersonal victimhood than comparable males, suggesting that the high rates of rejection they experience may be particularly onerous on their well-being (Costello et al., 2022a; Sparks et al., 2022). Indeed, 95% of incels surveyed through incels.co reported having depression (38% had a formal diagnosis; Moskalenko et al., 2022). Both Sparks et al. (2022) and Costello et al. (2022a) also found that incels experienced greater depressive symptoms than non-incel men. Similarly, higher rates of general anxiety (Costello et al., 2022a; Moskalenko et al., 2022) and dating anxiety (Sparks et al., 2022) have been noted in this population. These have been found to relate to fears about being single which incels, not surprisingly, experience a great deal of (Sparks et al., 2022). Incels also endorse less secure attachment styles, although it is difficult to determine whether this is influenced by the magnitude of their rejection, the misogynistic content that is present on incel forums, or something else (Baele et al., 2021; Jones, 2020; Sparks et al., 2022). It is, however, consistent with depictions of women as untrustworthy and manipulative, a prominent trope in incel dialogue (Baele et al., 2021; Jaki et al., 2019; Jones, 2020).
Social connections as buffers for adverse eventsThe need for social connection has been documented for centuries; Aristotle described humans as “political animals” and over 2,000 years later researchers have begun exploring the capacity for friendship between humans and artificially intelligent robots (Archer, 2021; Aristotle, 2013). In the interim, a bounty of evidence has accumulated documenting the benefits of social connections ranging from increased happiness, mental health, and cardiovascular health to the pursuit of goals (Bartolini et al., 2013; Gore, 2014; Lombardi et al., 2019; Xia & Li, 2018). On the contrary, loneliness has been associated with an increased risk of depression, pain, fatigue, inactivity, and mortality (Domènech-Abella et al., 2017; Hawkley et al., 2009; Jaremka et al., 2013; Tanskanen & Anttila, 2016). Further, experiencing loneliness can perpetuate a cycle of increased loneliness, wherein the isolated person experiences an exaggerated response to negative social events while also perceiving positive events as less pleasant (Aframn & Kashdan, 2015; Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2005).
Social supports also serve a protective purpose. Adams et al. (2011) found that receiving distressing news with a best friend present buffered the impact on participant cortisol levels and subjective measures of self-worth compared to those who received the news alone. Social support was also associated with better emotional functioning and less stressful reactions two months after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis (Ringdal et al., 2007). Henrich and Shahar (2008) found that social support can cushion against depressive symptoms in adolescents who were exposed to rocket attacks in Israel. The amount of time spent with friends during adolescence has even been associated with protective effects in young adulthood. Specifically, adolescents who spent more time with friends demonstrated less activity in the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—regions linked with the processing of pain and negative affect—after experiencing exclusion in a virtual ball-tossing game (Masten et al., 2012). Recently, Schacter et al. (2019) found that the link between peer rejection in middle school and later relational aggression was moderated by friendship quality in high school, with rejection only predicting aggression among individuals with low friendship quality during the ninth grade. Social support has also been implicated as a protective factor in the aftermath of divorce, with perceived social support mediating the relationship between loss and psychological well-being (Kołodziej-Zaleska & Przybyła-Basista, 2016). A meta-analysis of 21 studies also found that social relationships are associated with lower levels of maladjustment and higher levels of positive adjustment in recent divorcees (Kramrei et al., 2007). Potentially due to the efficacy of friendship, Perilloux and Buss (2008) found that one of the most frequently reported coping strategies among recently separated individuals was talking with friends.
Current studyIt is apparent that friendship and social support are not only integral parts of the human experience but are instrumental in buffering the effects of negative events. Given the prevalence of seeking comfort from friends when relationships go sour (and the buffering effect that is has), one must wonder whether incels’ reported lack of friends has influenced the way in which they perceive and respond to romantic rejection (Kołodziej-Zaleska & Przybyła-Basista, 2016; Kramrei et al., 2007; Perilloux & Buss, 2008). Seemingly, lacking social connections removes a potential therapeutic outlet for their relational and sexual strife, with which they must find other means of coping. According to Jones (2020), the coping mechanisms employed by incels are primarily solitary activities, which could exacerbate their feelings of isolation. What remains unclear is whether lacking social outlets for the venting of romantic/sexual frustrations is uniquely predictive of inceldom.
Thus, the aim of this study is to identify whether incels do indeed have lower levels of social support and whether that is uniquely predictive of incel identity. Similarly, social support’s role as a predictor of incel status will be tested. The study will also serve as an opportunity to replicate some of the group differences that emerged between incel and non-incel men as well as associating these measures with the recently developed Incel Traits Scale (Scaptura & Boyle, 2020), which would provide further evidence of the measure’s convergent validity. If the proposed study is successful in replicating the results of Sparks et al. (2022) or in associating these variables with the Incel Traits Scale, how perceived social support may influence the differences/associations in the fear of being single, attachment, depressive symptoms, and self-esteem can be explored. If these seemingly integral components of the incel experience are indeed a product of low levels of perceived social support, this would suggest that perceived social support may serve as both a cause of and solution to inceldom, warranting further inquiry.
HypothesesAs noted above, the aim of the current study is to replicate some of the findings from Sparks et al. (2022) and to identify how social isolation and a lack of social supports may be implicated in the incel experience. In accordance with this, the following hypotheses have been generated:
Incels will report more depressive and anxious symptoms, greater fear of being single, lower levels of social support and self-esteem, higher levels of loneliness, and endorse more problematic coping strategies relative to non-incels. Incels will also demonstrate a pattern of less secure attachment.
Incels will score higher on measures of social dominance orientation, externalization of blame, self-critical rumination, belief in female sexual deceptiveness, and sexual entitlement and report their perceived mate value as lower compared to non-incels.
The above-mentioned measures will significantly correlate with the Incel Traits Scale in the same direction as suggested in hypotheses 1–2; incels will also score higher than non-incels on this measure.
Perceived social support and loneliness will account for a significant portion of the differences and associations predicted in hypotheses 1 and 2.
SampleThe study utilized an undergraduate student participant pool (SONA; restricted to students enrolled in first-year psychology courses) and a university-wide online forum (personal access to web service; PAWS) to recruit a sample that served as a comparison group to incels; men were the primary reference comparison group and the basis for testing the above hypotheses. This recruitment took place at an institution situated in the Canadian prairies. As Reddit has removed several of the exclusive incel forums, incels were recruited through study advertisements posted on related subreddits, mostly r/Virgin and to a lesser extent r/Antifeminists. Incel status was based on whether participants classified themselves as an incel or not; self-identified incels recruited via the SONA and PAWS system were included in the incel group rather than the male comparison group. Those who completed the survey through SONA were given course credit as compensation for their participation (others received no compensation). This resulted in a sample consisting of 67 incels and a comparison group of 103 non-incel males, which exceeded the minimum number of participants (34 and 96, respectively) needed to detect a moderate effect size (d = 0.50) with 0.80 power based on an a priori one-tailed power analysis in G*Power3 (Faul et al., 2007). However, this calculation was based on an expected allocation ratio (0.36) similar to Sparks et al. (2022), which was surpassed in the current study (0.65); as such, a sensitivity analysis revealed that effect sizes of 0.39 and above could be reported with 0.80 power. Both incels and non-incels were largely heterosexual (92.5% and 82.5%, respectively), of European ancestry (67.3% and 56.3%, respectively), in their mid-twenties (MAGE = 26.83, SD = 11.24; MAGE = 23.54, SD = 6.60, respectively), and were politically neutral (M = 4.18, SD = 1.45; M = 4.34, SD = 1.57). Over twice as many incels reported currently using a dating app compared to non-incel males (46% and 20%, respectively). See Table 1 for further demographic details.
DiscussionThe present study sought to understand the role of loneliness, isolation, and social supports in the lives of incels. This was inspired by Maxwell et al. (2020) finding that social isolation is a key theme in incel discourse. The present study also sought to expand on a survey conducted in their analysis of r/Braincels paired with a survey conducted on the incels.me website where only one third of incels reported having at least one friend. If incels do experience solitude to a greater degree than non-incel men, this radically transforms and expands our understanding of incels and the context in which they experience romantic rejection (see Sparks et al., 2022 for a discussion on incels’ experiences of rejection). Results indicate that this is indeed the case, with incels reporting a higher degree of social and emotional loneliness and lower levels of social support from friends and family. Incels also demonstrated a pattern of using more problematic coping strategies, such as behavioural disengagement and self-blame relative to non-incel males, who had higher endorsement of healthier coping strategies, including seeking emotional support and positively reframing the situation. Similarly, incels reported much higher levels of self-critical rumination. These results support hypothesis 1, painting a relatively bleak picture of the means available to incels to express or cope with their frustrations, romantic or otherwise.
Not surprisingly, both loneliness and perceived social support correlated strongly with a number of mental and relational well-being items, such as depression, anxiety, self-esteem, fear of being single, secure attachment, and avoidant attachment, with anxious attachment only correlating with loneliness. Similar to Sparks et al. (2022), these well-being metrics were all domains where incels significantly differed from their non-incel counterparts, with incels demonstrating more anxious and depressive symptoms and anxious and avoidant attachment styles, while scoring lower in self-esteem and secure attachment similar to patterns observed by Costello et al. (2022a). While incels scored higher in measures of social dominance orientation, self-critical rumination, female sexual deceptiveness, and sexual entitlement (consistent with hypothesis 2), they actually scored lower on the externalization of blame measure (in contradiction with hypothesis 2). Regardless, these variables either did not or only sporadically correlated with the above variables (e.g., depressive symptoms, secure attachment) that showed moderate to large differences between the two groups. In its debut use with an actual incel sample, the Incel Traits scale did indeed correlate in the expected direction with the above variables where significant differences were found between incels and non-incel males (in support of hypothesis 3). A large, significant effect was found between scores on the Incel Traits scale with incels scoring 76% higher than non-incels.
When simultaneously entered into a binary logistic regression to predict group membership, only two variables emerged as significant, unique predictors of incel status: avoidant attachment and perceived mate value. This did not support hypothesis 4, which estimated that the lack of social supports and higher rates of loneliness would best differentiate incels from non-incels. When the two significant predictors were entered into their own binary logistic regression, only perceived mate value emerged as a significant predictor of incel group membership. Entered on its own, perceived mate value correctly classified 86% of participants, a high level of accuracy that did not meaningfully differ from the full model, which had a classification rate of 90%.
That neither social supports nor loneliness emerged as unique predictors of incel status is interesting, given that there were large differences found between incels and non-incels on these measures. It is even more curious given that they do not share a strong conceptual overlap with other variables that may have suppressed their predictive utility; however, there were strong correlations between both measures and other metrics that showed large effects such as secure attachment, depression, fear of being single, and perceived mate value. This statistical overlap may have contributed to social support and loneliness not emerging as unique predictors. It is important not to interpret these null findings as evidence that social supports and loneliness are not important elements of inceldom; rather, their contributions may be complex and involve other variables (e.g., lacking social supports may exacerbate depressive symptoms, feelings of loneliness may make their singlehood more salient).
ImplicationsThe novelty of the present study offers several suggestions to better understand the experiences of incels, an understudied group. Similar to Sparks et al. (2022), incels reported a pattern of increased rates—both in general and relative to their male comparisons—of mental health issues. These were moderately to strongly associated with incels’ lower levels of social support and higher feelings of loneliness. Although these were not uniquely predictive of being an incel, it highlights the potential importance of having social support, particularly in the face of romantic rejection (which incels experience to a large degree; Sparks et al., 2022), in potentially buffering against detrimental mental health outcomes. It also indicates that many of the qualitative works that have been done on incel forums that have either missed or minimized the loneliness theme that was identified by Maxwell et al. (2020), which may be key to the incel experience. Although it was expected that incels would report worse mental health, lower levels of social support, and greater perceptions of loneliness than their non-incel peers, what is particularly stunning is the magnitude of differences between the two groups given that data was collected in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—a period that has seen elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and isolation across general populations (Pfefferbaum & North, 2020; Pierce et al., 2020; Vigo et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020). While the pandemic undoubtedly has a deleterious effect on the well-being of incels as well, it is possible that its effects actually minimized the differences between incels and non-incels. For instance, non-incels on averaged scored around the scale midpoint for loneliness, considerably higher than figures reported by individuals in France, Germany, and the Netherlands prior to the pandemic (De Jong Gierveld & Van Tillburg, 2010).
Despite the significant differences between incels and non-incels on virtually every metric, only two uniquely predicted incel group membership when all were entered simultaneously in a binary logistic regression: avoidant attachment and perceived mate value. This is somewhat similar to Sparks et al. (2022) where secure attachment and self-esteem emerged as the lone predictors of incel status. What is interesting in the present study is that self-esteem was close to emerging as a unique predictor (95% CIs: 0.96, 3.12), suggesting that it may be distinct from perceived mate value and that the latter is a more specific barometer for incels, as it is effectively a domain-specific measure of self-efficacy. That a form of attachment has again emerged as one of the few unique predictors of inceldom (low levels of secure attachment in Sparks et al. (2022), high levels of avoidant attachment in this study) suggests that this is a central feature that has been overlooked in academic and media analyses of incels. Given what has been discussed about incels, attachment researchers would likely not be surprised by the findings of the present study, as depictions of women as devious, conniving, and untrustworthy certainly reflect an insecure attachment style (Baele et al., 2021; Jones, 2020; O’Malley et al., 2020). This portrayal of women as shallow and unavailable is a somewhat ironic twist, given the reluctance of avoidantly attached persons to form close emotional bonds, which appears to be a central feature of incels.
The emergence of insecure attachment as a key issue among incels has been discussed primarily as a barrier to forming romantic or sexual relationships or as a potential contributor to incel views of women. However, it is also worth noting that their low levels of secure attachment in particular may also impact their platonic relationships with others and contribute to their feelings of loneliness and lack of social support. Indeed, strong relationships were found between secure attachment, loneliness, and social support. A recent longitudinal study by Loeb et al. (2021) has also found that attachment insecurity at age 14 is associated with later difficulties in receiving support from friends later in adolescence. Further, the relationship between insecure attachment and negative interactions with romantic partners was partially mediated by peer social support. This suggests that negative romantic interactions are the result of an interaction between insecure attachment and poor peer support, which may have implications for future incel research, particularly as involuntary celibacy researchers have long indicated that these issues are persistent and enduring over time (Donnelly et al., 2001).
One intriguing finding that emerged was the endorsement of the “venting” coping strategy, the lone healthy mechanism that incels utilized more frequently than their non-incel peers. Initially, this appears at odds to the other pattern of results, where incels report feeling alone and lacking social support, ostensible prerequisites to engage in venting. However, it is possible that this is referencing their use of incel and parallel forums as therapeutic spaces. In this vein, Helm et al. (2022) found that incels on Reddit often share their experiences and seek support through emotional expressions of frustration, loneliness, and hopelessness. That incels were recruited from incel-adjacent forums for this study strengthens this possibility. Multiple studies have indicated that online venting is not only common, but beneficial as well (Utz & Breuer, 2017; Vermeulen et al., 2018). There may even be social benefits; Wendorf and Yang (2015) found that online venting mediated the relationship between perceived stress and relationship maintenance, suggesting that online disclosure of personal problems may motivate individuals to invest more in their online friendships. An analysis of teenage Reddit use and mental health during the pandemic indicated that users were more likely to express more specific negative emotions and mental health issues in specific subreddits, suggesting that they may be more likely to share personal details in a community that may be more supportive or receptive to this information (Zhang et al., 2021). However, recent work by Himawan et al. (2021) on single men found that support received online was not associated with their life satisfaction or feelings of loneliness.
Despite these positive outcomes, it is important to note that Costello et al. (2022a) found that forum use actually predicted higher mean levels of anxiety. This has obvious relevance to the incel community, who saw their incel-specific subreddits, such as r/Incel, r/Braincel, and r/IncelWithoutHate shut down by Reddit over a period of three years. It also has implications for our interpretation of incel discourse on these forums. If incels lack real-world friends and social supports and are using online forums as avenues for the expression of negative emotions as a form of release or catharsis without regard for political (or even moral) correctness rather than rallying cries for an ideology, such a frame of reference must be taken into account when interpreting such discussions (see Neitzel & Welzer, 2012 and their use of reference frames when analyzing recorded conversation between National Socialist POWs in World War II).