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May 20, 2024 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Ybarra explores how communion and agency impact loneliness in the workplace

Research coauthored by Gies College of Business Professor Oscar Ybarra presents evidence that the concept of loneliness may be more complex than previously assumed. Usually looked at solely in terms of dimensions of social interactions (or lack thereof), Ybarra sees loneliness as having more dimensions. This unique approach adds the dimension of "agency" to the mix to come up with a more rounded, complete view of what impacts feelings of loneliness. Ybarra and his coauthor Todd Chan (Google) describe their findings in "The s(quad) model, a pattern approach for understanding the individual and their social network relations: application to loneliness," which was recently published in Frontiers in Social Psychology.

Ybarra, Professor of Business Administration and Academic Director for the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, wanted to expand what had been focused on in the past. “I’ve examined the literature in this space, and it shows the importance of relationships for all sorts of aspects of motivation and for all sorts of well-being like life satisfaction. For me, there wasn’t enough nuance. When we talk about relationships being good, we only have one profile in mind. I wanted to show that you can use two variables to come up with different profiles.”

Ybarra took the dimension of "communion" or relationships – which is commonly the focus of research examining loneliness – and added "agency," the experience of control over one’s actions and environment. He then developed a model where these two dimensions could be combined into four quadrants: one where the individual was high in agency and communion, two where the individual was high in one but low in the other, and one where the individual was low in both. 

Ybarra calls this the S(quad) model and is feature unique to this study. “That’s something that I came up with,” he said. “Applying it to these close, personal social networks is something that has never been done. It’s kind of a way of thinking of the quadrants, but thinking about what kind of group or squad you’re really surrounding yourself with.”

Ybarra investigated data taken from TILDA, an Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging, which was conducted between October 2009 and February 2011. These data are relevant because they focus on close personal relationships (spouse, children, other family members, and close friends), providing a good basis for examining loneliness. “One thing that I found noteworthy is that the data actually split up in that manner so cleanly into those four profiles,” Ybarra said. “For me, that really speaks to the very fundamental nature of these two dimensions and how they can align in different ways.”

Looking at the quadrants, the indications are that the individuals who are in the high-communion, high-agency quadrant are doing “better” in terms of loneliness than most of those in the other groups. Those in the low-communion, low-agency were clearly experiencing loneliness and the personal and emotional problems that can come with that. Ybarra found that those in the quadrants that were high in one dimension but low in the other were able to find ways to compensate for the lower dimension, but they still experienced loneliness compared to the high, high group.

“What this study is showing is that communion — or relationships — matter, but so does this sense of agency. If you don’t have the sense of control or agency in your life, that’s cultivated someway through your relationships, you’re also going to feel lonely.”

One thing this study demonstrates is that there is more to understanding and working with loneliness than the communion dimension. One of the implications of this study is that individuals could change where they lie among the S(quad)s through a change in their personal social network – either to experience increased communion or increased agency, depending on where the individual is currently located among the dimensions. This should bring about positive outcomes.

But one single dimension should not be the sole focus of such an effort. As Ybarra explained, “If you look at reviews of interventions that have been done to try to decrease loneliness, they just focus on the communion dimension – let’s just give you more opportunities to interact with others and connect. But if you look at agency, there’s the idea of choice or control, which I think is huge. What this study is showing is that communion matters, but so does this sense agency. If you don’t have the sense of control – agency in your life – you’re also going to feel lonely.”