Neoliberalism has become the dominant ideology in many parts of the world. Yet there is little empirical research on its psychological impact. On the basis of a social identity approach to health, we hypothesize that, by increasing competition and by reducing people’s sense of connection to others, neoliberalism can increase loneliness and compromise our well-being. Study 1 (N = 246) shows that the more neoliberal people perceive society to be, the worse their well-being, and that this relationship is mediated via loneliness. In two experiments, we showed that exposure to neoliberal ideology increases loneliness (Study 2, N = 204) and, through this, decreases well-being (Study 3, N = 173). In Study 4 (N = 303), we found that exposure to neoliberal ideology increased loneliness and decreased well-being by reducing people’s sense of connection to others and by increasing perceptions of being in competition with others. In Study 4, the effect of neoliberalism on well-being was evident for liberals only. We discuss the potential impact of neoliberalism on different social groups in society.
A key principle of neoliberal ideology is that economies and societies should be organized along the principles of the free market. The merits and shortcomings of this ideology are routinely debated in fields of political science and economics (e.g., Duménil & Lévy, 2011; Harvey, 2007), but in this paper, we explore its implications for health and well-being. Here, it could be argued that neoliberalism will generally be beneficial because this ideology encourages individuals to strive for self-actualization, personal growth, and happiness (Adams, Estrada-Villalta, Sullivan, & Markus, 2019). However, it can equally be argued that individuals are harmed by neoliberalism because this ideology promotes competition and, in the process, undermines people’s sense of solidarity and social security (e.g., Müller, 2013; Piketty, 2015). In fact, under neoliberalism, economic disparities are seen as accurate reflections of differences in hard work and deservingness and the neoliberal age has seen a corresponding rise in inequality (Ostry, Loungani, & Furceri, 2016; Piketty, 2015).
Research on the social psychological effects of neoliberalism is relatively new (e.g., Bettache & Chiu, 2019). Nevertheless, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists have presented correlational data showing that societal systems which create socio-economic inequality (which can be one consequence of neoliberalism; see Ostry et al., 2016), tend to have detrimental effects on citizens’ educational achievement, rates of imprisonment, obesity, and violence, as well as on their physical and mental health (e.g., Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). However, to our knowledge, the effects of neoliberal ideology on variables such as social isolation, loneliness, and well-being have yet to be studied. The present research fills this gap by attempting to explore whether neoliberal ideology can heighten loneliness and associated health problems.
In this context, previous research has shown that social factors have an important impact on health. Although lay people believe that lifestyle and environmental factors such as smoking and air pollution are the most important determinants of mortality, recent research suggests that social factors have the same or even a greater impact on health (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015; Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). Indeed, while their importance tends to be underestimated (Haslam, McMahon, et al., 2018), meta-analytic evidence suggests that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone are among the most potent determinants of mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Loneliness is also related to stress hormones, immune, and cardiovascular function (e.g., Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). In this way, the link between social disconnection and poorer health outcomes has been validated across multiple studies. In the present research, we aim to extend this work by examining social determinants of loneliness. More specifically, we test the novel hypothesis that imagining a neoliberal society might increase people’s feelings of loneliness and, through this, have a negative impact on their health and well-being.
Neoliberalism and social inequality
Neoliberalism is founded on assertions that human well-being and progress can best be secured by increasing entrepreneurial freedom, individual responsibility, property ownership, and free trade while at the same time keeping government and state involvement in economic affairs to a minimum (Harvey, 2005). This has become the dominant political-economic ideology across the globe in recent decades (e.g., Bettache & Chiu, 2019), but, to date, little or no research has examined its impact on health and well-being.
Common economic and social consequences of neoliberal policies include reduced access to social security and increased social inequality (Müller, 2013; Piketty, 2015). Indeed, it has been argued that inequality is not an unintended result but itself an important feature of neoliberal politics because it is supposed to serve as a mechanism to increase competition and productivity (Foucault, 2008; Mirowski, 2014). Rising inequality, in turn, is related to lower levels of social cohesion and trust and a decline of community life (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). In line with this, researchers have shown that happiness declines as social inequality rises (Oishi, Kesebir, & Diener, 2011; but see Li, Zuckerman & Diener, 2019). This relationship between inequality and happiness is explained statistically by lower perceived fairness and lower generalized trust rather than by lower household income (Oishi et al., 2011). Accordingly, there is already evidence that by fostering social inequality neoliberal politics can have a negative impact on well-being at a societal level. In the present analysis, however, we focus on the impact of neoliberalism on the psychology of individuals.
Why might neoliberalism elicit feelings of loneliness and compromise well-being?
Whereas social isolation can be objectively measured (e.g., as the number of people in a person’s social networks, their frequency of social contact) and does not necessarily have negative consequences for a person (e.g., because they may like having few friends or spending time alone), loneliness is the perception of unwanted social isolation, and relates to a subjective emotional state of being alone (Hertz, 2020; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). In this, it reflects a discrepancy between actual and desired social relationships (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Peplau & Perlman, 1982). As a result, it is not only the quantity of a person’s social connections that matters for their well-being, but also their subjective satisfaction with the connections that they have (e.g., Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).
Neoliberal systems build on and reinforce specific psychological tendencies of liberal individualism – for instance, an imperative for personal growth and fulfilment, and an emphasis on affect management for self-regulation (Adams et al., 2019). Pursuit of these ideals is argued to make people happy, excited, and enthusiastic, and to help them flourish and self-expand (Adams et al., 2019; Maslow, 1959). So why might this aspiration for personal growth lead to problematic health outcomes? There are at least two inter-related literatures that speak to this question.
The first of these relates to the observation that the neoliberal self (‘homo neoliberalus’; Teo, 2018) is an entrepreneurial subject whose philosophy recommends that individuals pursue an imperative for personal growth and fulfilment by competing with each other (e.g., Scharff, 2016). Here, a growing body of work suggests that this state of interpersonal competition can have a negative impact on people – especially if it is prolonged and inescapable (e.g., Adams et al., 2019; Scharff, 2016; Teo, 2018). In particular, this is because it places the responsibility for success on people’s own shoulders and, in the process, weakens broader solidarities that might otherwise buffer them against failure (Adams et al., 2019; Teo, 2018). This in turn has been linked to reduced well-being associated with feelings of insecurity, anxiety, stress, and depression (e.g., Sennett, 1998). For example, research has shown that a neoliberal conception of personal debt as failure is associated with increased anxiety, depression, and blood pressure (Sweet, 2018). Further, the neoliberal narrative of personal responsibility has been associated with an increase in shaming (e.g., in discourse on obesity; e.g., Haslam, Jetten, Cruwys, Dingle, & Haslam, 2018; Peacock, Bissell, & Owen, 2014).
Relatedly, a second large body of research suggests that neoliberalism can be problematic because the individualism at its core denies people access to group life and its curative potential (Haslam, Jetten, et al., 2018). In this context, a range of studies have shown that group memberships, and the sense of social identity that they furnish people with, are the basis for a range of health-enhancing social psychological resources – including social connection and social support (Drury, Brown, González, & Miranda, 2016; Haslam, Reicher, & Levine, 2012; Hopkins & Reicher, 2017; Hopkins et al., 2016; McNamara, Stevenson, & Muldoon, 2013; Muldoon & Lowe, 2012; Muldoon, Schmid, & Downes, 2009), as well as a sense of control (Greenaway et al., 2015), purpose, and meaning (Cruwys et al., 2014; Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, Jetten, et al., 2014). In line with this point, evidence suggests, for example, that joining meaningful groups is an important way for people to stave off depression and overcome social isolation (Cruwys et al., 2014a, 2014b; Haslam et al., 2019; Haslam, Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, & Chang, 2016). However, with its strong emphasis on individual responsibility and non-reliance on others, neoliberalism denies people access to the curative potential of social connections. To the extent, then, that neoliberalism reduces people’s capacity to access this ‘social cure’ it might be expected to have deleterious consequences for health and well-being (Jetten, Haslam, Haslam, Dingle, & Jones, 2014).
The present research
The present article provides an experimental test of the above ideas. More specifically, we explore the argument that neoliberalism with its emphasis on personal responsibility and its de-emphasis on social support and solidarity can lead to feelings of loneliness and of being alone in a highly competitive system in ways suggested by the two-pathway model presented in Figure 1. The model illustrates how neoliberalism can reduce well-being by increasing loneliness via two pathways. First, we propose that neoliberalism makes people feel lonely because it encourages them to see others as a source of competition which can be a significant cause of psychological ‘wear and tear’ (e.g., Adams et al., 2019; Scharff, 2016; Teo, 2018). Second, the neoliberal emphasis on self-reliance in the pursuit of individual success increases loneliness by reducing access to the curative potential of social connections (Haslam, McMahon, et al., 2018; Hopkins et al., 2016; Jetten et al., 2014; McNamara et al., 2013).
Our first three studies test different aspects of this model. Study 1 uses cross-sectional data to examine whether there is a relationship between perceived neoliberalism and well-being mediated by feelings of loneliness. Study 2 then explores this relationship experimentally by testing whether exposure to neoliberalism leads to increased feelings of loneliness. Study 3 tests whether exposure to neoliberalism leads to lower levels of well-being mediated by feelings of loneliness. Finally, Study 4 tests the full model. Here, we hypothesize that, by increasing competition and by reducing people’s sense of connection to others, neoliberalism can increase loneliness, which, in turn, is negatively related to well-being. In all studies, we test whether political orientation and social class moderate the results. This is because it is conceivable that the effects of neoliberalism are particularly prevalent for those who are left-wing (because they reject neoliberal systems) and people from lower social classes (because they are most exposed to the impact of a free-market society in which there is no social security).
The sample size was determined a priori using the Monte Carlo power analysis for indirect effects (Schoemann, Boulton, & Short, 2017; correlations among variables = .30, power = .95, α = .05). This indicated that we needed 224 participants to detect the mediation. Data were collected at the railway station and on the university campus of a medium-sized town in Germany and via Facebook advertisement. Of the 248 people who completed the survey, two did not finish. Most of the final sample of 246 participants were Germans (96%), and 70% were female. They were 19–63 years old (M = 25.53, SD = 8.25). Participants all had the chance to win one of two €50 vouchers.
Perceived Neoliberalism was assessed with ten self-developed items based on Hartwich and Becker (2019). In order to create broad measures, the items assess three dimensions of perceived neoliberalism: freedom from economic constraints (e.g., ‘In our society, control over the economy is left to the free market’), individual responsibility (e.g., ‘our society highly values individual success’), and social inequality (e.g., ‘in our society jobs and housing are allocated according to ability rather than need)’, for the full scale, see supplementary online material, SOM), one item was deleted to improve reliability, α = .78. As with all other measures, responses were made on six-point rating scales (where 1 = do not agree at all, 6 = agree completely). This measure of neoliberalism reflects several important and interconnected elements of neoliberalism derived from previous research and theory, which suggests that individual responsibility and freedom from social and economic constraints can enable some people (a privileged global minority) to pursue their aspirations and achieve great personal wealth and success – but that this comes at the expense of collective freedom, social equality, social justice, and solidarity in societies because hardship, struggle, and oppression are also relegated to individual responsibility (e.g., Adams et al., 2019; Müller, 2013; Ostry et al., 2016; Perez & Salter, 2019; Piketty, 2015).
Loneliness was assessed with two items from the UCLA Loneliness scale (Russell, Peplau, & Ferguson, 1978: ‘I feel isolated from others’, ‘I feel left out’), and two adapted items (‘I am alone’, ‘I feel lonely’); α = .85.
Well-being was assessed with three items related to physical health (‘I am satisfied with my physical well-being’, ‘I feel like I'm not leading a healthy life’ [reverse-coded]; ‘I often have symptoms such as headache, back pain or stomach pain’ [reverse-coded]) and two items related to psychological health (Demerouti & Bakker, 2008: ‘I often feel exhausted’, ‘When I get home at the end of the day I’m too tired to get anything done’ [both reverse-coded]. Together all five items created a reliable scale (α = .78).
Political orientation was assessed with a 1(left) to 7(right) scale and social class via self-categorization as working class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, upper class. We discuss our decision to use this left–right scale in the SOM. For exploratory purposes, we also assessed social support but do not discuss this further.
Results and discussion
Table 1 presents descriptive statistics and correlations. In order to test whether loneliness mediates the link between perceived neoliberalism and well-being, we conducted a mediation analysis using PROCESS (Hayes, 2018, Model 4, bias-corrected 95% confidence intervals, 10,000 bootstrap samples) with perceived neoliberalism as the predictor, well-being as the outcome, and loneliness as mediator. The total effect of perceived neoliberalism on well-being was significant, b = −.39, SE = .09, t(244) = −4.25, p < .001, 95% CI [−0.56, −0.22]. Perceived neoliberalism was related to feelings of loneliness, b = .56, SE = .09, t(244) = 6.40, p < .001, 95% CI [0.39, 0.74]. Loneliness was, in turn, related to well-being, b = −.42, SE = .06, t(244) = −6.80, p < .001, 95% CI [−0.54, −0.30]. When all variables were entered into the model, the total effect of perceived neoliberalism on well-being was reduced to a non-significant direct effect, b = −.16, SE = .09, t(244) = −1.70, p = .091, 95% CI [−0.34, 0.02]. As expected, the effect of perceived neoliberalism on well-being was mediated via loneliness, B = −.24, SE = .06, 95% CI [−0.35, −0.13], in line with our hypothesis that perceived neoliberalism is related to feelings of loneliness, which was negatively linked to well-being (see Figure 2). We tested whether the effect of perceived neoliberalism on well-being mediated by loneliness was moderated by political orientation or social class (using PROCESS, model 5). Results were moderated neither by political orientation, b = .03, SE = .05, t(240) = 0.58, p = .563, 95% CI [−0.07, 0.14], nor by social class, b = .06, SE = .12, t(244) = 0.50, p = .616, 95% CI [−0.18, 0.30].
|4 Political orientation||2.96||1.19||–||.17*|
|5 Social class||3.23||.69||–|
- *p < .05, **p < .01 (two-tailed).
While these findings provided preliminary support for our hypothesis, the study’s correlational design precludes definitive statements about the causal relationships between these variables. Accordingly, in the next studies, we addressed this limitation by exposing individuals to neoliberal ideology and interrogating its causal impact on loneliness (Study 2) and well-being (Study 3).
The variables included in this study were part of a larger survey that addressed a broad range of consequences of neoliberalism and hence a number of measures not relevant to the present research (Hartwich & Becker, 2019). The sample size was determined a priori using G*Power (moderate effect size f2 = .25, power = .95, α = .05). Half of the 204 participants (54%) were female (Mage = 33.20, SD = 17.48) and most were Germans (97.5%).
Design and procedure
In this future society, flexibility and freedom [equality and justice] are more important than equality and justice [flexibility and freedom]. Individual success [public spirit] is valued over public spirit [individual success]. Jobs, housing and other resources are distributed according to ability [need]. Each [no] individual is left to fend for themselves without [with] a social safety net or the community stepping in to take care of them in times of need. Taxes are low [high] because the government takes on few [many] responsibilities. Private businesses are not [are] regulated by the government and control of the economy is [not] left to the free market. Public services like health care and education are [cannot be] privatized and run for profit and are not [are] free for everyone.
Participants were instructed to think about the future society when answering the dependent variables.
Loneliness was measured with two items (‘In the end, everyone is alone/I feel lonely’); α = .71 on a seven-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). Political orientation and social class were assessed as in Study 1. We also added manipulation checks that confirmed that we manipulated different aspects of neoliberalism (individual success vs. public spirit; taxes low vs. high; economy controlled by government vs. free market; see SOM). We also added further variables such as anomie, anti-elitism, prejudice, which are not discussed here (see Hartwich & Becker, 2019).
Results and discussion
Table 2 presents descriptive statistics and correlations. An univariate ANOVA with condition as the independent variable and loneliness as the dependent variable revealed a significant main effect, F(2, 200) = 22.62, p < .001, η2 = .18. Post hoc tests using Bonferroni correction revealed that, as hypothesized, participants in the neoliberalism condition were significantly more lonely (M = 4.68, SD = 1.79) than those in the social equality (M = 3.28, SD = 1.52), p < .001, and control conditions (M = 2.90, SD = 1.57), p < .001 (while there was no difference between the social equality and control conditions, p = .530).1 Moderated regression analysis (PROCESS model 1) suggested that the effect of neoliberalism (vs. the control) on loneliness was moderated by political orientation, b = −.25, SE = .10, t(202) = −2.58, p = .011, 95% CI [−0.44, −0.06]. The effect of neoliberalism on loneliness was stronger for participants who were left-wing (1 SD below the mean), B = 1.08, SE = .16, t(202) = 6.68, p < .001, 95% CI [0.76, 1.40] rather than right-wing (1 SD below the mean), B = .59, SE = .15, t(202) = 3.95, p < .001, 95% CI [0.29, 0.88]. In sum, this finding is consistent with the correlational patterns observed in Study 1, but provides the first causal evidence that neoliberal ideology can engender a sense of loneliness.
|2 Political Orientation||3.14||1.23||–||.24**|
|3 Social Class||3.15||0.68||–||–|
- *p < .05, **p < .01 (two-tailed).
Study 2 did not include indicators of well-being. In Study 3, we tested whether exposure to neoliberalism decreases well-being through increased feelings of loneliness. To increase generalizability across countries, participants in this study were from the United Kingdom.
The variables we selected in this study were part of a larger survey (see Hartwich & Becker, 2019). The sample size was determined a priori using G*Power (moderate effect size f2 = .25, power = .95, α = .05). A total of 173 participants (68.2% female, Mage = 36.9, SD = 11.6) were recruited via Prolific Academic. Participants were paid two pounds for their participation. All participants were British nationals and identified their ethnicity as white.
Design and procedure
The procedure was identical to that of Study 2. All materials were translated into English and verified by native speakers of both languages. Items were assessed on seven-point scales (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree).
Loneliness was assessed with two items from Study 2 (‘In the end, everyone is alone’, ‘I feel lonely’) and two items from Study 1 (‘I feel isolated from others’, ‘I feel left out’); α = .85. Well-being was assessed with three items related to psychological health (Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961: ‘I feel like a failure’, ‘I am disappointed in myself’, ‘I am worried about my health’, all reverse-coded) and two items related to physical health (‘I am satisfied with my physical well-being’, ‘I feel like I'm not leading a healthy life’ [reverse-coded]); α = .84. Political orientation and social class were assessed as in Study 1.
We added manipulation checks which confirmed that we had successfully manipulated different aspects of neoliberalism (individual success vs. public spirit; taxes low vs. high; economy controlled by government vs. free market, see SOM). We also added further variables such as anomie, anti-elitism, prejudice (see Hartwich & Becker, 2019).
Results and discussion
Table 3 presents descriptive statistics and correlations. ANOVAs with condition as a between-subject factor and loneliness, and well-being as dependent variables revealed significant main effects, F(2, 170) = 8.67, p < .001, η2 = .09, F(2, 170) = 7.36, p = .001, η2 = .08, respectively. Post hoc tests using Bonferroni replicated the finding from Study 2 with participants in the neoliberalism condition being significantly more lonely (M = 4.15, SD = 1.31) than those in the social equality (M = 3.20, SD = 1.30), p = .001, and control conditions (M = 3.31, SD = 1.45), p < .001; while there was no difference between the social equality and control condition, p > .999). Moreover, participants in the neoliberalism condition had lower well-being (M = 4.02, SD = 1.28) than those in both the social equality (M = 4.94, SD = 1.06), p = .001, and the control condition (M = 4.57, SD = 1.50, although this effect only approached traditional significance levels, p < .067; with again there being no difference between the social equality and control conditions, p = .395).
|3 Political Orientation||3.30||1.48||–||–||.07|
|4 Social class||3.12||0.92||–||–||–|
- *p < .05, **p < .01 (two-tailed).
As in Study 1, we conducted a mediation analysis using PROCESS (Hayes, 2018, Model 4, bias-corrected 95% confidence intervals, 10,000 bootstrap samples) with condition (neoliberalism vs. control, contrast coded: +1/−1) as the predictor, well-being as the outcome, and loneliness as mediator (see Figure 3). The total effect of exposure to neoliberalism on well-being was significant (b = −.27, SE = .13, t(117) = −2.15 p = .034). Exposure to neoliberalism predicted loneliness (b = .42, SE = .13, t(117) = 3.32, p = .001) and loneliness predicted well-being (b = −.62, SE = .07, t(117) = −8.34, p < .001). When all variables were entered into the model, the total effect of neoliberalism was reduced to a non-significant direct effect (b = −0.10, SE = 0.11, t(117) = −0.13, p = .894). As hypothesized, loneliness mediated the effect of exposure to neoliberalism on well-being, B = −0.26, SE = .09, 95% CI [−0.11, −0.45], suggesting that people who are exposed to neoliberal ideology report lower levels of well-being because they feel lonelier.2
Moderated regression analysis (PROCESS model 5) suggested that the effect of neoliberalism (vs. the control) on well-being mediated via loneliness was moderated neither by political orientation, b = .12, SE = .08, t(117) = 1.86, p = .066, 95% CI [−0.008, 0.26], nor by social class, b = −.003, SE = .11, t(117) = −0.02, p = .982, 95% CI [−0.23, 0.22]. These results thus replicate and extend the findings of Study 1 and 2. In line with our primary hypothesis, they point to the idea that anticipating a neoliberal future society reduces well-being by increasing people’s loneliness.
Study 4 was conducted to test the full model depicted in Figure 1, including an increased sense of competition and social disconnection as additional process variables that were hypothesized to mediate the effect of exposure to neoliberal ideology on loneliness.
The sample size was determined a priori using the Monte Carlo power analysis for indirect effects (Schoemann et al., 2017; power = .80, α = .05) indicating that we need 238 participants to detect a serial mediation with two mediators. However, because we included a further parallel mediation, we sampled more participants than this. A total of 303 US-American participants (54% female, Mage = 33.3, SD = 11.0) were recruited via Prolific Academic and were paid £1.50 for participating.
Design and procedure
The procedure was identical to that in Study 2 and Study 3. All responses were made on seven-point scales (where 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree).
Competition was measured with four items (‘I am competing with other people’, ‘I measure my success in life by comparing myself to other people’, ‘Doing things better than other people is important to me’, ‘I often compare myself to others’), α = .86.
Social disconnection was measured with seven items (‘I don't feel a sense of belonging’, ‘I feel disconnected from others’, ‘I don’t feel supported by my social groups’, ‘I don’t feel a sense of shared identity’, ‘I belong to a community that supports each other’, ‘I have social groups that I identify with’, ‘The social groups I belong to give my life meaning’; the latter three being reverse-coded). A factor analysis suggested a one-factor solution (first three Eigenvalues: 4.34; 1.03; 0.43; α = .90).
Loneliness was assessed with the same four items as in Study 1 and two further items from the UCLA Loneliness scale (Russell et al., 1978: ‘I feel as if nobody really understands me’, ‘No one really knows me well’), α = .97.
Well-being was assessed with the six items from Study 3 plus two newly added items (‘All in all, I am happy with who I am’, ‘I often feel unwell’), α = .93. A measure of Burnout was added for this study, comprised of six items adapted from the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (Demerouti & Bakker, 2008; ‘I often feel exhausted’, ‘I often don’t have the energy to do the things I enjoy’, ‘When I get home at the end of the day I’m too tired to get anything done’, ‘I often feel like I don’t want to go on like this’, ‘I’m having a hard time relaxing’, ‘I often feel drained and weary’), α = .97. Because the two measures were highly correlated (r = .80, p > .001), they were combined and recoded into a single measure of Well-being (α = .96). Political orientation was assessed on a 1 (liberal) to 7 (conservative) scale. Social class was assessed as in Study 1.
As in Study 3, we also included manipulation checks which confirmed that we successfully manipulated different aspects of neoliberalism (see SOM). We also assessed fairness, individualism and some further variables for exploratory purposes.
Results and discussion
Competition, disconnection, loneliness, and well-being were all intercorrelated (Table 4). ANOVAs with condition as a between-subject factor and competition, disconnection, loneliness, and well-being as dependent variables revealed significant main effects for all three outcome variables, F(2, 286) = 16.96, p < .001, η2 = .11, F(2, 286) = 10.21, p = .001, η2 = .07, F(2, 286) = 13.07, p < .001, η2 = .08, and, F(2, 286) = 17.40, p < .001, η2 = .11, respectively. Post hoc test using Bonferroni indicated that participants in the neoliberalism condition reported higher levels of competition (M = 4.73, SD = 1.51) than those in both the social equality (M = 3.62, SD = 1.60), p < .001, and control conditions (M = 3.64, SD = 1.45, p < .001; whereas there was no difference between participants in the social equality and control conditions, p > .999). Similarly, participants in the neoliberalism condition reported being significantly more disconnected (M = 4.15, SD = 1.35) than those in both the social equality (M = 3.46, SD = 1.31), p = .001, and the control conditions (M = 3.32, SD = 1.45, p < .001; with there being no difference between the social equality and control conditions, p > .999). Participants in the neoliberalism condition also reported being significantly more lonely (M = 4.25, SD = 1.87) than those in the social equality (M = 3.17, SD = 1.72), p < .001, and the control conditions (M = 3.10, SD = 1.76), p < .001; with again there being no difference between the social equality and control conditions, p > .999), Finally, participants in the neoliberalism condition had significantly lower well-being (M = 3.60, SD = 1.59) than those in the social equality (M = 4.71, SD = 1.47), p < .001, and the control conditions (M = 4.72, SD = 1.52, p < .001; whereas once more there was no difference between the social equality and control conditions, p > .999).
|5 Political Orientation||2.93||1.71||–||–||–||–||.02|
|6 Social class||3.22||1.15||–||–||–||–||–|
- *p < .05, **p < .01 (two-tailed).
In order to test our dual-pathway model (Figure 4), we conducted a mediation analysis using PROCESS (Hayes, 2018, Model 80, bias-corrected 95% confidence intervals, 10,000 bootstrap samples) with condition (neoliberalism vs. control, contrast coded: +1/−1) as the predictor, well-being as the outcome, and competition, disconnection, and loneliness as mediators. The total effect of exposure to neoliberalism on negative well-being was significant, b = −.56, SE = .11, t(186) = −4.90, p < .001, 95% CI [−0.79, −0.34]. Exposure to neoliberalism predicted competition, b = .54, SE = .11, t(186) = 4.99, p < .001, 95% CI [0.33, 0.76], and disconnection, b = .42, SE = .10, t(186) = 4.06, p = .001, 95% CI [0.21, 0.62], which in turn predicted loneliness, b = .19, SE = .06, t(186) = 3.05, p = .003, 95% CI [0.07, 0.32], and, b = .90, SE = .07, t(186) = 13.46, p < .001, 95% CI [0.78, 1.03], respectively. Loneliness in turn predicted well-being, b = −.61, SE = .06, t(186) = −9.78, p < .001, 95% CI [−0.74, −0.49]. With these variables included, the total effect of neoliberalism on well-being was reduced to a non-significant direct effect, b = −.15, SE = .09, t(186) = −1.75, p = .082, 95% CI [−0.32, 0.02]. As expected, the effect of exposure to neoliberalism on well-being was mediated via both competition and loneliness, B = −.06, SE = .03, 95% CI [−0.12, −0.01], and disconnection and loneliness, B = −.23, SE = .06, 95% CI [−0.36, −0.11]. This accords with our hypothesis that neoliberalism can increase loneliness and health problems by pitting individuals against each other in a competitive environment and eroding social connections between them (see Figure 4). We tested three alternative models which did not explain the data better than the model depicted in Figure 4 (see SOM).
Finally, moderated regression analysis (PROCESS model 5) suggested that the effect of neoliberalism (vs. the control) on well-being mediated via competition, social disconnection, and loneliness was moderated by political orientation, b = .11, SE = .04, t(185) = 2.54, p = .012, 95% CI [0.03, 0.20]. The effect of neoliberalism on well-being was significant for liberals (1 SD below the mean), b = −.35, SE = .11, t(185) = −3.03, p = .003, 95% CI [−0.57, −0.12], but not significant for conservatives (1 SD above the mean), b = .04, SE = .11, t(185) = 0.37, p = .711, 95% CI [−0.18, 0.29]. Interestingly, however, when we test for the same moderation using loneliness as outcome variable, we find that the effect of neoliberalism (vs. the control) on loneliness as mediated via competition and social disconnection (PROCESS model 5) was not moderated by political orientation, b = .03, SE = .05, t(185) = .66, p = .51, 95% CI [−0.07, 0.14].
This article sought to address the question of whether, and how, neoliberal ideology might affect individuals’ well-being. More specifically, we tested a model in which perceived neoliberalism reduced well-being by increasing a sense of competition and lack of connection between people in ways that increase their sense of loneliness (see Figure 1). In providing support for this model, to our knowledge, this is the first experimental research to show that thinking about a neoliberal society can decrease people’s well-being.
We garnered support for our theoretical model in one correlational and three experimental studies and across three national contexts (Germany, United Kingdom, United States). In this, the research contributes to a broader literature on the capacity for social factors to shape individual well-being in three key ways. First, it adds to previous work on the social determinants of health which highlights the ways in which neoliberalism (and its effects, e.g., inequality) can be a risk for health and well-being (e.g., Putnam, 2000; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Second, it contributes to the ‘social cure’ literature by providing evidence for the importance of social connections and social identities as buffers against negative health outcomes (e.g., Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Drury et al., 2016; Haslam et al., 2012; Haslam, McMahon, et al., 2018; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Hopkins & Reicher, 2017; Muldoon & Lowe, 2012). Third and most importantly, it brings these two lines of enquiry together to show that the negative consequences that neoliberalism can have for health flow in part from the fact that it promotes a sense of social disconnection, competition, and loneliness.
We started the manuscript by noting that neoliberalism might be expected to make people happy because it provides them with the motivation to grow and expand as individuals. Against this, however, we noted that it may actually prove problematic for mental health in ways suggested by social determinants and social cure research. Our findings support the latter position and suggest that there might be at least two key reasons for this.
First, people often ‘fail’ to be happy and to continuously achieve personal growth. To the extent that this is the case, it makes sense that mandatory striving for self-growth and happiness can be very stressful (Adams et al., 2019). In line with this suggestion, recent meta-analytic evidence indicates that negative attitudes towards one’s own emotional experience are related to greater depression severity (Yoon, Dang, Mertz, & Rottenberg, 2018). Moreover, within a neoliberal system the pursuit of individual self-expansion can only be achieved through competition with others and this competition can itself be a significant cause of psychological ‘wear and tear’ (e.g., Adams et al., 2019; Scharff, 2016; Teo, 2018).
Second, promoting the neoliberal idea that individuals need to fend for themselves in pursuing success and happiness may reduce their access to the curative potential of group life (Haslam, McMahon, et al., 2018; Hopkins et al., 2016; Jetten et al., 2014; McNamara et al., 2013). Here, a large body of ‘social cure’ research informed by a social identity approach to health has shown that group memberships and related social identities are the source of a range of health-enhancing social psychological resources – including social connection and social support (Haslam et al., 2012) – and through this help people to stave off social isolation and depression (Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, Haslam, et al., 2014; Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, Jetten, et al., 2014; Haslam et al., 2016). Relatedly, the expectation that the neoliberal self should be mobile (e.g., in terms of residence and social relations), leads people to change relationships in order to find satisfying social connections. Yet this relational mobility can encourage conditional group identification in which individuals remain committed to the group only for so long as the group is perceived to meet their reputational needs (Adams et al., 2019; Oishi, Ishii, & Lun, 2009). This in turn can undermine solidarity and community participation (Jetten, Reicher, Haslam, & Cruwys, 2020; Oishi et al., 2009; Sennett, 1998) and lead to feelings of loneliness and associated health problems.
Of course, neoliberal politics can also be a direct cause of poor health. This is because under neoliberalism, politicians often support tax cuts for the wealthy while withdrawing support for public services (e.g., in areas of health care and education) – notionally to encourage self-reliance and individual responsibility (which is closely linked to political ideology; see Azevedo, Jost, & Rothmund, 2019). The present research thus suggests that alongside this direct material pathway there may also be an indirect psychological one, that compounds its negative effects.
Limitations and future research
The effects of neoliberalism on loneliness and well-being were prevalent across the political spectrum in Germany (Study 1 and Study 2) and in the United Kingdom (Study 3), although the effect in Study 2 was stronger for those on the left. In the United States (Study 4), the effect of neoliberalism on loneliness was also prevalent among liberals and conservatives, but the effect of neoliberalism on well-being was apparent among liberals only. This may reflect the fact that Study 4 used a measure of political orientation that was different from that used in the other studies. In the first three studies, we used the left–right scale, but in the United States, we used the liberal-conservative scale. It is possible that conservatives were more likely than the typical right-wing people to think that they would be the winners in the neoliberal society. They might feel being in competition with others and more lonely because of that, but not imagine this would affect their well-being. Future research should seek to clarify the potential moderating role of political orientation to understand why neoliberalism, political orientation, and culture might interact for some variables (e.g., well-being) but not others (e.g., loneliness).
At the same time, it is interesting to note that social class did not moderate any of these effects. This is interesting given that one might expect individuals with lower socio-economic-status (SES) to be more threatened by the consequences of neoliberalism (e.g., the lack of social safety net). However, we have suggested that neoliberal ideology can also affect people with higher SES as well. For instance, heightened competition and loneliness can lead to burnout among those who profit from neoliberalism in the economic sense. Nevertheless, future research could look more carefully at the different forms of threat that neoliberalism poses for lower and higher SES individuals.
The lack of difference in loneliness and well-being between the social equality and control condition across experiments was also interesting. This potentially suggests that individuals in the control condition were more likely to think about an egalitarian future society than about an unfair society. Yet whether this was the case is an issue that might be explored directly in future research (by seeing which kind of society individuals imagine and which factors moderate their imagination of an ideal society). For instance, it is possible that people who endorse neoliberalism think about a neoliberal society in which they succeed, whereas those who strive for social equality think about a fair society in which differences in income are low.
Furthermore, although theorists argue that social inequality is a feature of neoliberalism (Foucault, 2008; Mirowski, 2014) and that both are strongly related (e.g., Müller, 2013; Piketty, 2015), critics might contend that, conceptually, neoliberalism and social inequality should be defined along orthogonal dimensions. Our manipulations of neoliberalism focused simultaneously on freedom from economic constraints (e.g., where there are low taxes, control of economy is left to the free market, and public services are privatized), on individual responsibility (where flexibility, freedom, and individual success are important, and resources are distributed according to ability), and on social inequality (where equality and justice were not important, and there was no social safety net). Accordingly, the impact of these components was confounded in our experimental designs. To address this, future research might manipulate the various aspects of neoliberalism (economic constraints, individual responsibility, and inequality) separately and thereby establish which has the strongest bearing on health and well-being.
Finally, in Studies 2, 3, and 4, we studied people’s responses to situations that were imagined rather than real. To move beyond this, it might be helpful if future research created a world (e.g., via role playing game) in which participants directly experience the consequences of neoliberalism to see whether the present results replicate in this real (rather than imagined) environment.
Our goal in this paper has been to provide a preliminary exploration of the impact of neoliberalism on individuals’ health and well-being. Despite suggestions that this political philosophy might promote individual well-being because it encourages people to strive for personal growth, we found that it actually appears be harmful to health because it can create a sense of being disconnected from others, as well as being in competition with them, in ways that feed feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Elsewhere, critiques of neoliberalism have tended to point mainly to its social and economic consequences (e.g., Piketty, 2015; Sennett, 1998). However, in a world where people are becoming increasing aware of the health-related costs of a mounting ‘loneliness epidemic’ (Holt-Lunstad, 2017; Murthy, 2017; Snell, 2017), it may be time to broaden our critical gaze and reflect on the extent to which this too is a consequence of neoliberalism. At the very least, as we attempt to tackle this epidemic, we need to be mindful of the fact that its causes can be political as much as social and psychological.
Conflicts of interest
All authors declare no conflict of interest.
Julia C. Becker (Conceptualization; Data curation; Formal analysis; Funding acquisition; Investigation; Methodology; Project administration; Resources; Software; Validation; Visualization; Writing – original draft; Writing – review & editing) Lea Hartwich (Conceptualization; Data curation; Formal analysis; Investigation; Methodology; Writing – review & editing) S. Alexander Haslam (Conceptualization; Supervision; Writing – review & editing).
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