Manuela Barreto

Nobel Conference 58

Manuela Barreto

Manuela Barreto

Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, University of Exeter

It takes a village to make someone lonely.

In 2018, 55,000 people completed an online survey, the “Loneliness Experiment.” It was the largest study of loneliness to date. Among its findings: young people (16 to 24) reported feeling lonely at the highest rates of any age group. Forty percent of people in that age bracket described themselves as often or very often lonely, compared with just 27 percent of people over 75 (the group often believed to experience the most loneliness). 

Manuela Barreto, a social psychologist, was a co-investigator of the Loneliness Experiment, which was a collaboration among the BBC, the Wellcome Collection, and researchers at three British universities. Building on the findings of the Loneliness Experiment, Barreto has gone on to work on a Europe-wide project to research and help to ease high-school-aged youth loneliness in concert with teachers from Portugal, Lithuania, Poland, Turkey, and the UK. The project, funded by a grant from Erasmus+ (the EU funding program for education, training, youth and sport) aims to develop interventions to mitigate loneliness in this age group. 

In her research, Barreto investigates mental health holistically, examining the intersections among many social determinants of wellbeing. Her research through the Loneliness Beacon on the identity and wellbeing of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals illustrates this well. Coupled with her work on loneliness, this research emphasizes the important issue of identity construction. In the midst of a pandemic during which many of us are spending much time online, we can lose our sense of self as well as our sense of others. Barreto’s research explores this disconnection while also aiming to examine the coping mechanisms that come with building community.

Manuela Barreto is Head of the Psychology Department at the University of Exeter, UK, where she is also an academic at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health. Born and raised in Portugal, she studied for her PhD in Amsterdam and now works in the UK, bringing her extensive intercultural experience to bear on a variety of issues pertaining to mental health.

Barreto's talk: In this presentation Barreto will discuss dominant understandings of loneliness and point out their limitations. She will define loneliness, summarize current scholarship about its causes and consequences, and point out the individualistic focus of current knowledge, which tends to miss the social context where loneliness often emerges. She will defend the need for a more social understanding of loneliness, as a property of communities rather than of individuals and present studies demonstrating how loneliness emerges in a social context, often as a result of forms of exclusion. The presentation will end with a discussion of the implications of this shift in focus from loneliness as the result of individual deficits to loneliness as a fundamental social justice issue