The Cultural Roots of Loneliness and Violence

Research with boys helps us understand the roots of loneliness and violence.

Posted Dec 29, 2019

The night before he killed himself and six other people, one of whom he stabbed 94 times, 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers said into his cell phone: “Tomorrow is the day of retribution. The day in which I will have my revenge against humanity, against all of you [because] for the last eight years of my life…I have been forced to endure an existence of loneliness…I’ve had to rot in bleak and sad loneliness all these years.” 

When I asked 12-year-old boys in an all-boys’ school the reasons for the school shootings, the boys initially claimed that the shooters were “crazy.” When I asked them what made them crazy, two boys said in unison “loneliness” and then explained that “sometimes feeling lonely makes you feel angry and then you act crazy.” 

Boys and young men tell us directly that they feel lonely and that such feelings can lead to suicidal thoughts and violent actions. Rates of reported loneliness, suicide, and mass violence, in fact, have risen dramatically. Generation Z is the loneliest of all, with 60% of boys and girls reporting that they feel “left out or isolated from others.” Suicide rates have also risen, with an increase of 33% nationwide since 1999, especially among adolescents and young adults. While girls have always been more likely to attempt suicide than boys, boys have always been more likely to die from suicide. That remains true today. The suicide rates among black boys in the U.S., in particular, have risen 73% from 1991 to 2017. 

While mass violence continues to be committed almost exclusively by white boys, other forms of violence are also evident across racial groups. If we are going to effectively tackle what are the violent consequences of loneliness, we need to understand why boys and young men, in particular, are feeling so lonely and what we can do about it. 

As a psychology professor that has conducted mixed-method research for over three decades on social and emotional development from early to late adolescence, I have learned the answers to these questions by listening to young people themselves. What boys and young men have taught me is that there is a clash between the culture in which they are raised and their nature, which is to want and need close friendships, including with their male peers. 

As they reach middle to late adolescence and the cultural expectations of manhood that dismiss and demean that desire intensifies, their social and emotional needs go unmet. Adam, one of the boys in my studies, says at the age of 16, “it might be nice to be a girl because then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.” Boys and young men, even Elliot Rodgers in his manifesto, blame a culture that privileges all things stereotypically masculine and devalues and even mocks all things stereotypically feminine. A culture in which the self, independence, autonomy, and stoicism are valued at the expense of relationships, community, and vulnerability. 

Yet the boys in my studies, as well as the larger body of science over the past decade, underscore that our desire and need for relationships and our ability to express our genuine emotions are as important as our desire and ability to be independent and stoic. Such a hierarchy of values has only intensified as research based on Google data has indicated that we are now significantly less likely to use the pronouns “we” and “us” and more likely to use “I” and “me” in our language when compared to previous decades.

Our interview-based research with boys from early to late adolescence starkly reveals the clash between culture and nature. When asked to describe his best friend, Justin, at age 14, says: “My best friend and I love each other…That’s it…You have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it … I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens. It’s human nature.” 

Jason, at 15 years old, says: “My ideal best friend is a close, close friend who I could say anything to …’cause sometimes you need to spill your heart out to somebody and if there’s nobody there, then you gonna keep it inside, then you will have anger. So, you need somebody to talk to always.” 

Approximately 85 percent of the boys and young men in my studies over the past three decades sound similar to Justin and Jason, particularly during early and middle adolescence. 

As boys became men, however, the tone and content of their responses changed. When asked about their male friendships, the same boys who only a year or so earlier had said that they “loved” their male best friends now began to sound defensive, frustrated, angry, and, at times, mournful over what they described as a loss of close friendships. While certainly, some continued to have close friendships, many spoke about the difficulties of maintaining such friendships as they grew older. It wasn’t that they no longer had time for them. They simply found it harder to stay close to their best friend, particularly with other boys, as the pressures to man up intensified. 

When asked what changed about his friendships since his freshman year in high school, Justin, in his senior year of high school, says:

“I don’t know, maybe, not a lot, but I guess that best friends become close friends. So that’s basically the only thing that changed. It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends, and then general friends become acquaintances. So, they just ... if there’s distance whether it’s, I don’t know, natural or whatever. You can say that but it just happens that way.”

Boys often spoke about such losses and struggles. They suggested by their repetition of the phrase “no homo” that friendships with other boys had become “girly and gay,” rather than simply a human desire and need. 

Rather than simply being a period of progress, adolescence for the boys is also a period of loss. As their bodies are almost fully grown and their minds increasingly attuned to cultural messages about manhood, boys appear to distance themselves from the very relationships that they relied on previously so that they wouldn’t go “crazy or mad or be lonely all the time.” In response to a modern culture that links the desire for closeness and even emotional acuity with a sex (female) and a sexuality (gay), boys appear to “mature” into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and, oftentimes, quite isolated.

The solution lies with normalizing our social and emotional capacities and needs and nurturing them in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. In a classroom of seventh-grade boys, I read a quote of a teenage boy in my study in which he expresses his intense feelings for his male best friend. After listening to the quote, the boys began to giggle and told me that he “sounded gay.” I responded that I didn’t know his sexuality but that most boys in my studies sound like him at some point during adolescence. The boys looked stunned and then immediately began to confess their own desires for closeness with others, including their male classmates and their male and female siblings. 

Once we normalize the nature of boys and young men — and thus our own nature — we free them and ourselves to see their humanity, our collective humanity, and thus, the humanity of others. If we are going to prevent the violence that is a consequence of isolation, as well as the loneliness itself, it is urgent that we create a more caring culture that nurtures our nature rather than gets in the way. We are humans who think and feel, want independence and relationships, have a mind and body, can be stoic and vulnerable. We need our cognitive, social, and emotional skills to have the relationships we want. Boys and young men, as well as girls and young women, understand this intuitively. It is time that we recognize this as well, and begin to change our culture to address our crisis of connection.