Wednesday 28 February 2024

Loneliness as a closure of the affordance space: The case of COVID-19 pandemic

This post is by Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya, who is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Philosophical Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She works in embodied cognitive science, the enactive approach, phenomenology, and habits. This post is about her recent paper on loneliness and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya

When social distancing measures were implemented to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, many specialists were concerned about a potential dramatic upsurge in loneliness, which was particularly worrying given the wide range of physical and mental health problems associated with it (e.g., depression, anxiety, substance use, cognitive decline, cardiovascular diseases, and suicide risk). However, the few longitudinal studies comparing loneliness levels before and during the social contact restrictions present inconsistent results, with many factors influencing whether the levels of loneliness increased, decreased, or remained constant.

These inconsistent findings underscore the fact that loneliness is not the same as social isolation, so one may feel lonely even among many other people or, conversely, may not experience loneliness even if socially isolated. Thus, the reduction in the number of face-to-face interactions during pandemic-related social restrictions is not a reliable indicator of people’s level of loneliness. In this regard, I propose that loneliness, unlike social isolation, arises not from a lack of social contacts but from a lack of connections, in the sense that, while experiencing loneliness, one lacks meaningful relationships not only with other living beings but also with oneself and aspects of the environment.

I explore this idea by conceiving of loneliness as resulting from a closure in one’s affordance space, i.e., a closure in the range of relevant possibilities for action and interaction that are open to a concrete individual with a particular repertoire of habits. Given a relational reading of the notion of affordances, this closure pertains to both individuals and the materiality of their environment, so the same aspects of the environment could show up as meaningful and solicit action for one person but not for another. Importantly, the relevant affordances missing in loneliness are those that a person would find enjoyable or attractive to engage with if they were present and she had the adequate skills to do so. Moreover, I argue that the lack of those affordances that are most central to our habitual identities, and therefore more meaningful to us, will have a greater impact on our experience of loneliness.

To support this proposal, I consider three possible ways in which the COVID-19 lockdown may have increased levels of loneliness in some people by suddenly contracting their affordance spaces, thus disrupting their habitual possibilities for (1) joint action, (2) affective regulation, and (3) embodied social interaction. I also present some examples from qualitative studies that suggest that some people managed to overcome this contraction ––and even expand their affordance spaces–– by engaging with new affordances or increasing the affective allure of existing ones. This reconfiguration of their affordance spaces may have prevented some people from experiencing the high levels of loneliness that were expected at the beginning of the pandemic. For them, this experience could have been an opportunity to connect or reconnect with others, themselves, and the wider community. However, this opportunity was not equally open to everyone, as is the case for older adults, whose levels of loneliness increased during the pandemic.