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What is a Literature Review?
The scholarly conversation.
A literature review provides an overview of previous research on a topic that critically evaluates, classifies, and compares what has already been published on a particular topic. It allows the author to synthesize and place into context the research and scholarly literature relevant to the topic. It helps map the different approaches to a given question and reveals patterns. It forms the foundation for the author’s subsequent research and justifies the significance of the new investigation.
A literature review can be a short introductory section of a research article or a report or policy paper that focuses on recent research. Or, in the case of dissertations, theses, and review articles, it can be an extensive review of all relevant research.
- The format is usually a bibliographic essay; sources are briefly cited within the body of the essay, with full bibliographic citations at the end.
- The introduction should define the topic and set the context for the literature review. It will include the author's perspective or point of view on the topic, how they have defined the scope of the topic (including what's not included), and how the review will be organized. It can point out overall trends, conflicts in methodology or conclusions, and gaps in the research.
- In the body of the review, the author should organize the research into major topics and subtopics. These groupings may be by subject, (e.g., globalization of clothing manufacturing), type of research (e.g., case studies), methodology (e.g., qualitative), genre, chronology, or other common characteristics. Within these groups, the author can then discuss the merits of each article and analyze and compare the importance of each article to similar ones.
- The conclusion will summarize the main findings, make clear how this review of the literature supports (or not) the research to follow, and may point the direction for further research.
- The list of references will include full citations for all of the items mentioned in the literature review.
Key Questions for a Literature Review
A literature review should try to answer questions such as
- Who are the key researchers on this topic?
- What has been the focus of the research efforts so far and what is the current status?
- How have certain studies built on prior studies? Where are the connections? Are there new interpretations of the research?
- Have there been any controversies or debate about the research? Is there consensus? Are there any contradictions?
- Which areas have been identified as needing further research? Have any pathways been suggested?
- How will your topic uniquely contribute to this body of knowledge?
- Which methodologies have researchers used and which appear to be the most productive?
- What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
- How does your particular topic fit into the larger context of what has already been done?
- How has the research that has already been done help frame your current investigation ?
Examples of Literature Reviews
Example of a literature review at the beginning of an article: Forbes, C. C., Blanchard, C. M., Mummery, W. K., & Courneya, K. S. (2015, March). Prevalence and correlates of strength exercise among breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors . Oncology Nursing Forum, 42(2), 118+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.sonoma.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?p=HRCA&sw=w&u=sonomacsu&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA422059606&asid=27e45873fddc413ac1bebbc129f7649c Example of a comprehensive review of the literature: Wilson, J. L. (2016). An exploration of bullying behaviours in nursing: a review of the literature. British Journal Of Nursing , 25 (6), 303-306. For additional examples, see:
Galvan, J., Galvan, M., & ProQuest. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (Seventh ed.). [Electronic book]
Pan, M., & Lopez, M. (2008). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Pub. [ Q180.55.E9 P36 2008]
- Write a Literature Review (UCSC)
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- Literature Reviews: overview (UNC)
- Review of Literature (UW-Madison)
Evidence Matrix for Literature Reviews
The Evidence Matrix can help you organize your research before writing your lit review. Use it to identify patterns and commonalities in the articles you have found--similar methodologies ? common theoretical frameworks ? It helps you make sure that all your major concepts covered. It also helps you see how your research fits into the context of the overall topic.
- Evidence Matrix Special thanks to Dr. Cindy Stearns, SSU Sociology Dept, for permission to use this Matrix as an example.
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What is a Literature Review?
A literature review, also called a review article or review of literature, surveys the existing research on a topic. The term "literature" in this context refers to published research or scholarship in a particular discipline, rather than "fiction" (like American Literature) or an individual work of literature. In general, literature reviews are most common in the sciences and social sciences.
Literature reviews may be written as standalone works, or as part of a scholarly article or research paper. In either case, the purpose of the review is to summarize and synthesize the key scholarly work that has already been done on the topic at hand. The literature review may also include some analysis and interpretation. A literature review is not a summary of every piece of scholarly research on a topic.
Why are literature reviews useful?
Literature reviews can be very helpful for newer researchers or those unfamiliar with a field by synthesizing the existing research on a given topic, providing the reader with connections and relationships among previous scholarship. Reviews can also be useful to veteran researchers by identifying potentials gaps in the research or steering future research questions toward unexplored areas. If a literature review is part of a scholarly article, it should include an explanation of how the current article adds to the conversation. (From: https://researchguides.drake.edu/englit/criticism)
How is a literature review different from a research article?
Research articles: "are empirical articles that describe one or several related studies on a specific, quantitative, testable research question....they are typically organized into four text sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion." Source: https://psych.uw.edu/storage/writing_center/litrev.pdf)
Steps for Writing a Literature Review
1. Identify and define the topic that you will be reviewing.
The topic, which is commonly a research question (or problem) of some kind, needs to be identified and defined as clearly as possible. You need to have an idea of what you will be reviewing in order to effectively search for references and to write a coherent summary of the research on it. At this stage it can be helpful to write down a description of the research question, area, or topic that you will be reviewing, as well as to identify any keywords that you will be using to search for relevant research.
2. Conduct a Literature Search
Use a range of keywords to search databases such as PsycINFO and any others that may contain relevant articles. You should focus on peer-reviewed, scholarly articles . In SuperSearch and most databases, you may find it helpful to select the Advanced Search mode and include "literature review" or "review of the literature" in addition to your other search terms. Published books may also be helpful, but keep in mind that peer-reviewed articles are widely considered to be the “gold standard” of scientific research. Read through titles and abstracts, select and obtain articles (that is, download, copy, or print them out), and save your searches as needed. Most of the databases you will need are linked to from the Cowles Library Psychology Research guide .
3. Read through the research that you have found and take notes.
Absorb as much information as you can. Read through the articles and books that you have found, and as you do, take notes. The notes should include anything that will be helpful in advancing your own thinking about the topic and in helping you write the literature review (such as key points, ideas, or even page numbers that index key information). Some references may turn out to be more helpful than others; you may notice patterns or striking contrasts between different sources; and some sources may refer to yet other sources of potential interest. This is often the most time-consuming part of the review process. However, it is also where you get to learn about the topic in great detail. You may want to use a Citation Manager to help you keep track of the citations you have found.
4. Organize your notes and thoughts; create an outline.
At this stage, you are close to writing the review itself. However, it is often helpful to first reflect on all the reading that you have done. What patterns stand out? Do the different sources converge on a consensus? Or not? What unresolved questions still remain? You should look over your notes (it may also be helpful to reorganize them), and as you do, to think about how you will present this research in your literature review. Are you going to summarize or critically evaluate? Are you going to use a chronological or other type of organizational structure? It can also be helpful to create an outline of how your literature review will be structured.
5. Write the literature review itself and edit and revise as needed.
The final stage involves writing. When writing, keep in mind that literature reviews are generally characterized by a summary style in which prior research is described sufficiently to explain critical findings but does not include a high level of detail (if readers want to learn about all the specific details of a study, then they can look up the references that you cite and read the original articles themselves). However, the degree of emphasis that is given to individual studies may vary (more or less detail may be warranted depending on how critical or unique a given study was). After you have written a first draft, you should read it carefully and then edit and revise as needed. You may need to repeat this process more than once. It may be helpful to have another person read through your draft(s) and provide feedback.
6. Incorporate the literature review into your research paper draft. (note: this step is only if you are using the literature review to write a research paper. Many times the literature review is an end unto itself).
After the literature review is complete, you should incorporate it into your research paper (if you are writing the review as one component of a larger paper). Depending on the stage at which your paper is at, this may involve merging your literature review into a partially complete Introduction section, writing the rest of the paper around the literature review, or other processes.
These steps were taken from: https://psychology.ucsd.edu/undergraduate-program/undergraduate-resources/academic-writing-resources/writing-research-papers/writing-lit-review.html#6.-Incorporate-the-literature-r
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What is a Literature Review?
If this is your first time having to do a literature review, you might be wondering what a "literature review" actually is. Typically, this entails searching through various databases to find peer-reviewed research within a particular topic of interest and then analyzing what you find in order to situate your own research within the existing works.
Watch the following video to learn more:
What is Peer Review?
Most of your literature review will involve searching for sources that have gone through the peer-reviewed process. These are typically academic articles that have been published in scholarly journals and have been vetted by other experts with knowledge of the topic at hand.
How Do I Find Psychology Literature?
The following database are a great place to start to find relevant, peer-reviewed literature within the broad research area of psychology:
- APA PsycInfo This link opens in a new window From the American Psychological Association (APA), PsycINFO contains nearly 2.3 million citations and abstracts of scholarly journal articles, book chapters, books, and dissertations in psychology and related disciplines. It is the largest resource devoted to peer-reviewed literature in behavioral science and mental health.
- DynaMed This link opens in a new window A clinical reference tool of more than 3000 topics designed for physicians and health care professionals for use primarily at the point-of-care. DynaMed is updated daily and monitors the content of over 500 medical journal and systemic evidence review databases.
- EMBASE This link opens in a new window EMBASE is a major biomedical and pharmaceutical database indexing over 3,500 international journals in the following fields of health sciences and biomedical research. It is considered as the European version of Medline.
- MEDLINE with Full Text This link opens in a new window A bibliographic database that contains more than 26 million references to journal articles in life sciences with a concentration on biomedicine. A distinctive feature of MEDLINE is that the records are indexed with NLM Medical Subject Headings (MeSH®).
- PubMed This link opens in a new window PubMed® comprises more than 30 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books.
- Web of Science This link opens in a new window Web of Science is a comprehensive research database. It contains records of journal articles, patents, and conference proceedings, It also provides a variety of search and analysis tools. Web of Science Core Collection is a painstakingly selected, actively curated database of the journals that researchers themselves have judged to be the most important and useful in their fields
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Psychology 140: developmental psychology: the literature review.
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- Google Scholar This link opens in a new window Search across many disciplines and sources including articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. more... less... Lists journal articles, books, preprints, and technical reports in many subject areas (though more specialized article databases may cover any given field more completely). Can be used with "Get it at UC" to access the full text of many articles.
What is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a survey of research on a given topic. It allows you see what has already been written on a topic so that you can draw on that research in your own study. By seeing what has already been written on a topic you will also know how to distinguish your research and engage in an original area of inquiry.
Why do a Literature Review?
A literature review helps you explore the research that has come before you, to see how your research question has (or has not) already been addressed.
You will identify:
- core research in the field
- experts in the subject area
- methodology you may want to use (or avoid)
- gaps in knowledge -- or where your research would fit in
Elements of a Successful Literature Review
According to Byrne's What makes a successful literature review? you should follow these steps:
- Identify appropriate search terms.
- Search appropriate databases to identify articles on your topic.
- Identify key publications in your area.
- Search the web to identify relevant grey literature. (Grey literature is often found in the public sector and is not traditionally published like academic literature. It is often produced by research organizations.)
- Scan article abstracts and summaries before reading the piece in full.
- Read the relevant articles and take notes.
- Organize by theme.
- Write your review .
from Byrne, D. (2017). What makes a successful literature review?. Project Planner . 10.4135/9781526408518. (via SAGE Research Methods )
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C. The literature review
A good literature review synthesizes the research and presents an overview of the current level of understanding in a particular field to form the context for your research project. Once you have done an initial search of the literature to narrow down your ideas, it is time to conduct a more thorough review of the literature. Understanding the literature requires you to read, re-read, and think about complex ideas to help formulate a comprehensive review.
Literature reviews generally start with more general ideas and then become more specific. They usually start with an overview of the field and then funnel down into your specific research question. When discussing past research, the emphasis is on integration and interpretation of primary research articles by identifying key themes, trends, issues or comparisons. It is not simply a summary of each individual article. Below are some key components of the literature review.
A thorough literature search is essential in ensuring a comprehensive review. There should be sufficient research evidence on the subject in terms of both the quantity and diversity of sources.
Research should be synthesized and wide-ranging. Ideas should be presented in terms of themes rather than just a summary of individual studies.
There should be a degree of critical thinking including evaluations and questions of the literature.
The review should lead logically into your specific research question.
Click the button below to view a general literature review structure. Please note that the required structure may vary depending on your enrolled course.
All sources should be adequately referenced. For information on how to cite and reference, review Monash Library's "Psychology Citing and Referencing guide."
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This is a brief introduction on how to write a literature review. If you need a refresher, or want to tips, use this guide to help you get started.
If your professor has assigned a literature review, refer to the syllabus to ensure your review meets their requirements. This is simply a general guide designed to help you with the basics.
The narrower the topic the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read..
A Literature Review is a select list of available resources covering the topic in question accompanied by a short description AND a critical comparative evaluation/analysis of the works included http://www.library.arizona.edu/help/tutorials/litreviews/whatis.html
- an integral part of the scientific process
- reveals whether or not a research question has been answered by someone else
Major points to consider
- Thematic -- defined by a guiding question or concept
- Directly relevant
- Highly selective, narrowly focused
- May include all scholarly formats including government documents; book reviews; films; selected websites; scholarly open source journals
- Usually includes a thesis statement/narrowly focused research question,summary and/or synthesis of the ideas encountered. (synthesis=reorganization of information of what is known, what is yet to be discovered
Questions for Literature Reviews
Questions to ask, *expect that your work will be traced by readers., definitions:.
Literature : a collection of materials on your topic. (does not mean “literature” in the sense of “language and literature” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, etc.) —means understanding the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary literature Primary—peer reviewed, scholarly, original, review articles—secondary
Review : to look again at what has been written. (does not mean giving your personal opinion or whether or not you liked the sources.)
Research : re search –to search again.
Important Parts of A Literature Review
What is the purpose of a Literature Review? Why do people develop them?
How is a Literature Review organized? How do I do a Literature Review?
What do Librarians have to do with it? Librarians are available for assistance:
Video How To Write A Literature Review
How to write a literature reviews.
This video produced by SJSU explains important research and organizational principles that will help you in thinking about your critical approaches papers.
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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.
Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?
There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.
A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.
Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.
What are the parts of a lit review?
Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.
- An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
- A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
- Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
- Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.
- Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
- Connect it back to your primary research question
How should I organize my lit review?
Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:
- Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
- Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
- Qualitative versus quantitative research
- Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
- Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.
What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?
Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .
As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.
Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:
- It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
- Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
- Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
- Read more about synthesis here.
The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.
Clinical Psychology Literature Review: Literature Review
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Review of Literature
What is a literature review?
"All reviews involve analyzing and synthesizing multiple studies for the purpose of demonstrating their collective relevance for solving some problem, for understanding some issue, for explaining some relationship, and so on. Reviewing is an interpretive undertaking insofar as it is an effort to make sense of these studies and to establish their meaning. A widely held view is that reviews are a means of collecting and organizing the results of previous studies so as to produce a composite of what we have already learned about a particular topic. This approach assumes that knowledge accumulates within a field, and hence understanding of some phenomenon can be built up piece by piece, brick by brick, eventually yielding something like a more complete, thorough, and, hence, trustworthy understanding, which, in turn, can be more confidently applied to solving a problem of a particular kind."
Schwandt, T. A. (2007). Review of literature, In The SAGE dictionary of qualitative inquiry . SAGE Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412986281
Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students
Conducting a Systematic Literature Review
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The term "Literature review" varies depending upon the purpose. It is always best to check with your professor on their preferred type and style when writing a literature review or systematic review. These links are guides to begin to understand process and some products.
- Sources on Literature Reviews more... less... •Hart, C. (1998). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. London, UK: Sage Publications. Call number: H62 .H2566 1998. •Galvan, J.L. (2006). Writing Literature Reviews: A Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing. Call Number: H61.8 .G34 2006. •Macauley, P. (2001). The Literature Review. Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Deakin University. http://www.deakin.edu.au/library/findout/research/litrev.php •North Carolina State University Libraries. Literature Review: An Online Guide for Graduate Students (Video). Good overview for the graduate as well as undergraduate student.
- Academic Writing: Reviews of Literature (2001). Writer's Handbook.Madison, Wisconsin.The University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center.
- "Writing a Literature Review Paper" - Video Tutorial San Jose State University Tutorial
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Literature Review Overview
A literature review involves both the literature searching and the writing. The purpose of the literature search is to:
- reveal existing knowledge
- identify areas of consensus and debate
- identify gaps in knowledge
- identify approaches to research design and methodology
- identify other researchers with similar interests
- clarify your future directions for research
List above from Conducting A Literature Search , Information Research Methods and Systems, Penn State University Libraries
A literature review provides an evaluative review and documentation of what has been published by scholars and researchers on a given topic. In reviewing the published literature, the aim is to explain what ideas and knowledge have been gained and shared to date (i.e., hypotheses tested, scientific methods used, results and conclusions), the weakness and strengths of these previous works, and to identify remaining research questions: A literature review provides the context for your research, making clear why your topic deserves further investigation.
Before You Search
- Select and understand your research topic and question.
- Identify the major concepts in your topic and question.
- Brainstorm potential keywords/terms that correspond to those concepts.
- Identify alternative keywords/terms (narrower, broader, or related) to use if your first set of keywords do not work.
- Determine (Boolean*) relationships between terms.
- Begin your search.
- Review your search results.
- Revise & refine your search based on the initial findings.
*Boolean logic provides three ways search terms/phrases can be combined, using the following three operators: AND, OR, and NOT.
The type of information you want to find and the practices of your discipline(s) drive the types of sources you seek and where you search.
For most research you will use multiple source types such as: annotated bibliographies; articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers; books; blogs; conference papers; data sets; dissertations; organization, company, or government reports; reference materials; systematic reviews; archival materials; curriculum materials; and more. It can be helpful to develop a comprehensive approach to review different sources and where you will search for each. Below is an example approach.
Utilize Current Awareness Services Identify and browse current issues of the most relevant journals for your topic; Setup email or RSS Alerts, e.g., Journal Table of Contents, Saved Searches
Consult Experts Identify and search for the publications of or contact educators, scholars, librarians, employees etc. at schools, organizations, and agencies
- Annual Reviews and Bibliographies e.g., Annual Review of Psychology
- Internet e.g., Discussion Groups, Listservs, Blogs, social networking sites
- Grant Databases e.g., Foundation Directory Online, Grants.gov
- Conference Proceedings e.g., International Psychological Applications Conference and Trends (InPACT), The European Conference on Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences via IAFOR Research Archive
- Newspaper Indexes e.g., Access World News, Ethnic NewsWatch, New York Times Historical
- Journal Indexes/Databases and EJournal Packages e.g., PsycArticles, ScienceDirect
- Citation Indexes e.g., PsycINFO, Psychiatry Online
- Specialized Data e.g., American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment survey data, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Data Archive
- Book Catalogs – e.g., local library catalog or discovery search, WorldCat
- Library Web Scale Discovery Service e.g., OneSearch
- Web Search Engines e.g., Google, Yahoo
- Digital Collections e.g., Archives & Special Collections Digital Collections, Archives of the History of American Psychology
- Associations/Community groups/Institutions/Organizations e.g., American Psychological Association
Remember there is no one portal for all information!
Database Searching Videos, Guides, and Examples
- Comprehensive guide to the database
- Sample Searches
- Searchable Fields
- Education topic guide
- Child Development topic guide
ProQuest (platform for ERIC, PsycINFO, and Dissertations & Theses Global databases, among other databases) search videos:
- Basic Search
- Advanced Search
- Search Results
- Performing Basic Searches
- Performing Advanced Searches
- Search Tips
If you are new to research , check out the Searching for Information tutorials and videos for foundational information.
Finding Empirical Studies
In ERIC : Check the box next to “143: Reports - Research” under "Document type" from the Advanced Search page
In PsycINFO : Check the box next to “Empirical Study” under "Methodology" from the Advanced Search page
In OneSearch : There is not a specific way to limit to empirical studies in OneSearch, you can limit your search results to peer-reviewed journals and or dissertations, and then identify studies by reading the source abstract to determine if you’ve found an empirical study or not.
Summarize Studies in a Meaningful Way
The Writing and Public Speaking Center at UM provides not only tutoring but many other resources for writers and presenters. Three with key tips for writing a literature review are:
- Literature Reviews Defined
- Tracking, Organizing, and Using Sources
- Organizing and Integrating Sources
If you are new to research , check out the Presenting Research and Data tutorials and videos for foundational information. You may also want to consult the Purdue OWL Academic Writing resources or APA Style Workshop content.
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Psychology - How to Write a Literature Review
What is a literature review?
A literature review discusses published research studies on a specific topic or subject area.
What is the purpose of writing it?
The goal of the lit review is to describe, summarize, and evaluate previous research in a given area. It should explain important conclusions about your topic as well as identify any gaps in the research or areas for future study.
Choose a Topic and Find Articles
Choose a topic that interests you and remember to keep an open mind. Depending on how much research there is, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic.
- PsycArticles This link opens in a new window Scholarly journal articles on psychology topics.
- ProQuest Central This link opens in a new window The largest single periodical resource available, bringing together complete databases across all major subject areas, including Business, Health and Medical, Social Sciences, Education, Science and Technology, and Humanities.
- Google Scholar Search for scholarly articles and books. Be aware that the full text may not always be available.
Read the Articles
You want to read and understand each of your articles. A good starting point is to answer these 3 questions about each article:
1. What was the study's research question? In other words, what were they trying to find out?
2. What was the study's method? Briefly describe HOW they collected data and WHO their participant group was.
3. What do the results mean? Or what conclusions can we draw from the results?
Write the Lit Review
Connect: Think about what YOUR research question is for your lit review. Each article you found should connect to your topic/theme in some way and you should be able to describe your topic as a research question and your articles as answers to that question. Your summary for each article should show how they further our knowledge in relation to your topic.
Organize: Can you organize your articles into a few distinct groups? It could be by treatment method or age/ethnic group or other factor. The way you organize will depend on your topic and the research, but it will help you if you can group articles in some way.
Analyze: Think beyond just summary and about what we still don't know about this topic. Are there gaps in the research? Do too many studies use just one method of gathering data? What else is important to know? The "Discussion" section of your articles may help guide you in your analysis.
- College Drinking Games Literature Review Lit Review published in a scholarly journal. Good example of how lit reviews work in the field.
- How to Write a Literature Review from Psychology in Action Good advice on choosing a topic and searching for articles.
- Writing a Literature Review in Psychology from University of Washington Helpful info on all aspects of writing a lit review. Great resource.
- Literature Reviews from UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center This is not specific to Psychology, but has good tips on organizing your paper.
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- A literature review is a critical, analytical summary and synthesis of the current knowledge of a topic. As a researcher, you collect the available literature on a topic, and then select the literature that is most relevant for your purpose. Your written literature review summarizes and analyses the themes, topics, methods, and results of that literature in order to inform the reader about the history and current status of research on that topic.
What purpose does a literature review serve?
- The literature review informs the reader of the researcher's knowledge of the relevant research already conducted on the topic under discussion, and places the author's current study in context of previous studies.
- As part of a senior project, the literature review points out the current issues and questions concerning a topic. By relating the your research to a knowledge gap in the existing literature, you should demonstrate how his or her proposed research will contribute to expanding knowledge in that field.
- Short Literature Review Sample This literature review sample guides students from the thought process to a finished review.
- Literature Review Matrix (Excel Doc) Excel file that can be edited to suit your needs.
- Literature Review Matrix (PDF) Source: McLean, Lindsey. "Literature Review." CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments), 2015. https://www.projectcora.org/assignment/literature-review.
- Academic Writer (formerly APA Style Central) This link opens in a new window Academic Writer (formerly APA Style Central) features three independent but integrated centers that provide expert resources necessary for teaching, learning, and applying the rules of APA Style.
- Sample Literature Reviews: Univ. of West Florida Literature review guide from the University of West Florida library guides.
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) Sample literature review in APA from Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL)
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Literature Review: Conducting & Writing
- Sample Literature Reviews
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Sample Lit Reviews from Communication Arts
Have an exemplary literature review.
- Literature Review Sample 1
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Have you written a stellar literature review you care to share for teaching purposes?
Are you an instructor who has received an exemplary literature review and have permission from the student to post?
Please contact Britt McGowan at [email protected] for inclusion in this guide. All disciplines welcome and encouraged.
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- Published: 21 November 2023
“It’s a feeling of complete disconnection”: experiences of existential loneliness from youth to older adulthood
- Phoebe E. McKenna-Plumley 1 , 2 ,
- Rhiannon N. Turner 2 ,
- Keming Yang 3 &
- Jenny M. Groarke 1 , 4
BMC Psychology volume 11 , Article number: 408 ( 2023 ) Cite this article
Existential loneliness is a feeling which stems from a sense of fundamental separation from others and the world. Although commonly mentioned in the loneliness literature, there is relatively little empirical work on this construct, and existing work tends to focus on older and seriously ill individuals. The present study aimed to understand how people experience existential loneliness without specific constraints on precipitating factors like illness or age.
A qualitative online survey collected data from 225 adults aged 16 to 72 years old. Participants were asked to write about their experiences of existential loneliness and how these experiences compared to non-existential loneliness. Data were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis.
Of 225 participants, 51% knew the meaning of “existential loneliness” upon accessing the survey and in total, 83% had experienced existential loneliness. 93% of these participants had also experienced loneliness that was not existential in nature. 175 participants provided qualitative data regarding their experiences of existential loneliness, from which four themes were identified: Existential loneliness is (1) A deeper form of loneliness, and (2) A feeling of deep disconnection, in which (3) Cognitive evaluations and negative emotions are central elements, and (4) Stress and mental health issues are perceived as relevant factors.
Existential loneliness is a deeply rooted and impactful form of loneliness which involves feelings of profound separateness. This aspect of loneliness is deserving of further attention. Future research directions are suggested.
Peer Review reports
Loneliness is a distressing and painful experience which negatively impacts physical health, mental health, and wellbeing [ 1 , 2 , 3 ]. Although loneliness can occur when a person is socially isolated, it is a subjective feeling that one’s connections are lacking in some way which is separable from objective isolation [ 4 ]. Previous research indicates that loneliness may be more appropriately conceptualised as multidimensional, despite the dominance of a unidimensional approach in the loneliness literature [ 5 , 6 ]. For example, a recent systematic review of qualitative studies on loneliness found that loneliness can be felt in a pervasive sense, but can also relate to deficiencies in specific relationships or relationship types [ 7 ]. This aligns with Weiss’s [ 8 ] social needs theory which proposes two dimensions of loneliness related to specific relational deficits: (i) social loneliness, which arises when one feels that they lack a sufficient social network, and (ii) emotional loneliness, which results from the lack of satisfying intimate relationships. Another dimension is existential loneliness, which describes a deeply rooted form of loneliness stemming from a sense of fundamental separation from others and the world [ 9 ]. A wealth of literature describes loneliness as including social, emotional, and existential types [ 10 , 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 ] and two studies of older adults provide empirical support for this three-dimensional model [ 6 , 18 ], but the existential dimension has been relatively neglected in loneliness research. Existential loneliness may represent the pervasive type of loneliness evidenced by recent qualitative evidence synthesis [ 7 ]. It has been noted that efforts to address loneliness need to move beyond a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach [ 19 ] and it is likely that different dimensions require different approaches – for example, increasing general social contact may not be effective for someone who is emotionally lonely and lacks a close, intimate connection. Given the adverse effects of loneliness on health and wellbeing, as well as substantial public health and policy interest in alleviating this issue, a comprehensive understanding of specific dimensions like existential loneliness is vital to improve efforts to address loneliness.
Existential loneliness has been the focus of writing by scholars and practitioners from existential [ 20 ], humanistic [ 21 ], and theological traditions [ 22 ], but it has been relatively overlooked in empirical work. This may be partly due to the challenges of operationalising the construct. Existential loneliness has been defined variably in the literature. Examples presented in Table 1 demonstrate the diffuse aspects of these definitions, although each definition describes a sense of fundamental separation. The lack of conceptual clarity has been noted in systematic and scoping reviews of the construct [ 13 , 23 ]. In addition to challenges defining the construct, different approaches to labelling it may explain the relative dearth of empirical work on existential loneliness. While existential loneliness is discussed across the health psychology, nursing, and gerontology literature and by humanistic and existential writers such as Clark Moustakas and Irvin D. Yalom, the term existential isolation is also used by writers such as Yalom and in a growing area of existential psychological literature. Existential isolation research defines the construct as “feeling as though one differs, either chronically or acutely, with respect to one’s subjective experience” [ 24 , p. 56]. This quantitative research has found associations with being a man [ 25 ], having a minority identity [ 26 ], insecure attachment [ 27 ], and negative outcomes including depression and suicide ideation [ 28 ]. This work focuses on the degree of shared perspective a person experiences, which may not exhaustively account for feelings of existential loneliness, and does not explicitly tap into the negatively valent aspects of loneliness indicated by scholarly writing in existential, humanistic, and theological traditions [ 20 , 21 , 22 ] and the existing qualitative literature [ 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 ]. A conceptualisation of existential isolation as an objective state and existential loneliness as a subjective feeling has also been employed [ 13 , 33 ]. Research conceptualising existential loneliness as a felt experience of loneliness that impacts interpersonal relationships may complement this literature.
Qualitative research on existential loneliness to date has typically focused on older [ 15 , 32 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 ] and chronically or seriously ill [ 33 , 40 ] populations, although one recent study includes adolescents [ 41 ]. Research with these groups depicts existential loneliness as involving feelings of not belonging [ 15 , 32 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 41 ], feeling distant from meaningful relationships [ 15 , 32 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 41 ], lacking meaning in life [ 15 , 37 , 39 ], and having concerns about frailty, death, and the future [ 36 , 37 , 41 ]. A systematic review of the literature suggests that existential loneliness can be characterised as a condition (people are fundamentally separate), an experience (of a specific component of loneliness involving a total lack of relatedness), and a process (wherein the negative experience is transformed into a positive one) [ 13 ]. Additionally, a more recent review suggests that existential loneliness involves two characteristics: the perception of oneself as inherently separate, and the emotional aspects that come alongside that perception [ 9 ]. While cross-cultural research is lacking, one study expresses consistency in descriptions across Chinese and Swedish older adults [ 37 ]. This research underlines the importance of considering existential loneliness within the larger loneliness and social wellbeing literature, given that it is a distressing experience of interpersonal separation which may have negative consequences for wellbeing and health. This is particularly important given that existential loneliness has been described as a universal experience [ 42 , 43 ] which is at least somewhat culturally invariant [ 37 ] and may emerge in adolescence due to increased awareness of oneself as a separate being [ 44 ]. Indeed, recent research indicates the presence of low levels of existential loneliness, which were associated with feelings of general isolation, in young adults in Greece [ 45 ]. However, existing research on existential loneliness is limited by the focus on a specific life period and circumstances. A thorough conceptualisation of existential loneliness requires consideration of the lived experiences of a range of people, given that loneliness is a personal and subjective experience. Given the need to move beyond generic loneliness interventions [ 46 ], this knowledge may facilitate the development of more effective strategies to address specific aspects of loneliness.
A comprehensive understanding of how existential loneliness is experienced across the lifespan is lacking due to the relative dearth of literature on this construct and the focus on older and seriously ill individuals in the studies which have been carried out. Various definitions of existential loneliness exist (see Table 1 ), but there is a lack of knowledge regarding how individuals define their own experiences. Given that loneliness is a subjective experience, it is important that we ground our understanding of existential loneliness in first-hand experiences. This study aimed to address these aspects of the literature by gathering information regarding experiences of existential loneliness in individuals at various stages of the lifespan without specific constraints on contextual factors like illness or age. Additionally, this study aimed to explore perceived similarities and differences between experiences of existential loneliness and loneliness that is not existential in nature. Two research questions were investigated:
How do people describe their experiences of existential loneliness?
How do experiences of existential loneliness differ from experiences of loneliness that is not specifically existential in nature?
A qualitative online survey was used to collect data. While face-to-face interviews and focus groups have traditionally been used for qualitative data collection, technological advances afford the opportunity for innovative methods such as online qualitative surveys. Methodologists have argued that qualitative survey data are unique from interview data; they are usually very focused and dense with information, so smaller volumes can contain larger amounts of data [ 47 , 48 ]. Moreover, this method can facilitate disclosure and reduce the social desirability that may be inherent in face-to-face collection methods [ 47 ]. Online surveys can engender an enhanced sense of anonymity which is welcomed by participants [ 49 ], particularly for a sensitive and stigmatised topic such as loneliness, and provide opportunities to participate for those who might not engage in face-to-face data collection methods [ 50 ]. Moreover, they can generate openness regarding study design, allowing participants to comment on the appropriateness of the questions or wording [ 47 ]. With the aim to recruit widely to understand experiences of a sensitive and personal topic, an online qualitative survey method was therefore chosen for the present study.
Ethical approval was granted by the Research Ethics Committee in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast.
Ontological and epistemological approach
Critical realism underpins the present study. This approach asserts that the context of the social world filters what we can learn about a potential reality. It is believed that participants’ descriptions of their experiences of existential loneliness are grounded in an experiential reality – they are accurate – but they are not independent from their context [ 51 ].
In terms of epistemology, the research is contextualist. This basis assumes that context is part of knowledge generation, such that all activity is situated within a sociocultural network of meanings [ 52 ]. Reality is an active, dynamic event rather than a single truth [ 53 ]. Knowledge is always incomplete but still grants us insight into the world.
Participants were recruited via advertisements on social media (Twitter, Reddit), John Krantz’s ‘Psychological Research on the Net’ web portal, researchers’ networks, posters, and emails to relevant groups (e.g. university philosophy societies). These posts briefly explained the study and provided a link to the online survey. Participants had to be over the age of 16; they did not need to be aware of the meaning of the term “existential loneliness” at the outset of the study.
Decisions regarding sample size were guided by Braun and Clarke’s [ 54 , p. 211] guidance that, having estimated an anticipated sample size range, “researchers should then make an in-situ decision about the final sample size, shaped by the adequacy (richness, complexity) of the data for addressing the research question”. We anticipated that up to 100 participants may be appropriate, but this was exceeded due to high interest from participants. PMP regularly checked the survey responses to assess whether a sufficiently rich and complex body of data had been collected; the survey was closed when the data appeared sufficiently rich and nuanced.
The online qualitative survey was piloted with three potential participants (1 woman, 2 men, aged 26–33 years old) and edited in line with their feedback on comprehensibility and comprehensiveness. The final survey questions are provided in Fig. 1 .
Questions presented to participants in the online survey
Upon accessing the online survey, participants were presented with an information sheet, consent form, and six-digit code which could be used to later remove their response if they wished to withdraw. No participants requested to withdraw. Participants were then asked if they had experienced existential loneliness. If they stated yes, they were asked to provide their definition of existential loneliness. If they stated no, they were taken to the end of the survey. If they stated “I don’t know what existential loneliness is”, they were taken to a page which provided three definitions of existential loneliness from existing research [ 9 , 13 , 34 ; see Fig. 1 ]. They were then asked again if they had experienced this feeling, at which point they were taken to the end of the survey if they stated “no”. Participants who had stated yes originally were presented with these definitions after providing their own definition so that all participants had the same information. Following this, demographic questions were presented and then participants were asked to think carefully about a time they had felt existentially lonely and give open-ended responses to questions about this experience.
Participants were then asked if they had ever experienced loneliness that was not existential in nature, with an example provided of the distress one feels when they feel like their social life or relationships are lacking (see Fig. 1 ). If they stated yes, they were asked to think carefully about this experience and answer open-ended questions about the experience and how it compared to experiences of existential loneliness. Finally, all participants were asked to add anything relevant or significant about their experience of existential loneliness and thanked for participating. A list of resources for support organisations (e.g. the Samaritans) was provided.
The qualitative data analysis utilised reflexive thematic analysis, which is a flexible analytic approach in which themes are generated through iterative and reflexive engagement with the data [ 55 ]. This method was chosen as it allows the identification of overarching patterns in data regarding experiences [ 56 ] which is the aim of this study.
The analysis process followed guidance from Braun and Clarke [ 55 , 57 ]. This involved repeated close reading of the data to become familiar with key points. Points of interest and early ideas were noted. The data were then thoroughly coded by PMP, a PhD candidate with advanced qualitative training and experience, with points which could be relevant for the research questions assigned one or multiple codes. Data were coded from the first participant onward and then a second time working backwards from the midpoint of the dataset to check, add to, and refine codes. Codes were checked to ensure their coherence, appropriate labelling, and thorough representation of the data without undue influence from the researcher’s preconceptions, for example that existential loneliness may stem from ideas about fundamental separation. Following this, the codes were organised into themes which explained important patterns in the data relevant to the research questions. Some themes also included subthemes, representing distinct but related aspects of the larger theme. Themes and subthemes were reviewed by PMP and JG to ensure their coherence, distinctiveness from other themes, and representation of the dataset. Finally, the full dataset was read again to check that the themes represented the data well.
Data were collected from 225 participants. Of these, 186 stated that they had experienced existential loneliness and were therefore invited to complete the qualitative survey. Of these, ten participants answered none of the open-ended qualitative questions and one reported in the qualitative questions that they had never experienced existential loneliness, so these eleven participants were excluded from qualitative analysis. Therefore, 175 participants were included in the qualitative analysis. The qualitative responses ranged from 5 to 2,036 words total ( Mdn = 142.5).
These 175 participants’ ages ranged from 16 to 72 years ( M = 26.38, SD = 11.77); 129 were younger adults (16–29 years old), 40 were middle-aged adults (30–59 years old), and 6 were older adults (60 + years old). The majority identified as female (69.14%, N = 121), 44 (25.14%) identified as male, 10 (5.71%) identified another gender identity (including non-binary, genderfluid, and agender), and one preferred not to say. Most participants were located in the United States of America ( N = 109, 62.29%), Northern Ireland ( N = 20, 11.43%), England ( N = 10, 5.71%), Canada ( N = 10, 5.71%), and the Republic of Ireland ( N = 7, 4%), while a smaller number were located in Germany, Australia, Wales, France, Guatemala, Israel, the Netherlands, Panama, the Philippines, and other parts of the United Kingdom. The majority ( N = 108, 61.71%) identified themselves as White, while 19 (10.86%) identified themselves as Latino/Hispanic, 12 (6.86%) as Black, 11 (6.29%) as East Asian, and a smaller proportion as a mixed ethnicity, South Asian, Middle Eastern, another ethnicity, or preferred not to say. Most ( N = 162, 92.57%) had completed secondary school or a higher level of education. The majority were employed ( N = 103, 58.86%) and/or studying ( N = 112, 64%), while 6 (3.43%) were retired and 6 (3.43%) were not employed or studying.
Knowledge & prevalence of existential loneliness in the sample
Approximately half of the individuals who accessed the survey knew the meaning of the term “existential loneliness” ( N = 115, 51.11%). Of those, 86.96% ( N = 100) had experienced the feeling. 78% ( N = 86) of those who did not initially know the meaning of the term “existential loneliness” also identified as having experienced it after being presented with definitions of the construct. In total, the majority of participants ( N = 186, 82.67%) had experienced existential loneliness. Almost all individuals who had experienced existential loneliness had also experienced loneliness that was not existential in nature, but 13 (6.99%) had not.
Definitions of existential loneliness
Definitions of existential loneliness were sought to check that the term “existential loneliness” was conceptualised in a congruent manner by participants and the research team. Ninety-three participants included in the qualitative analysis gave a definition. These were coded inductively to create a summary of major elements. Participants’ definitions described existential loneliness as a type of loneliness that revolved around feeling alone, disconnected and separate from the world and everyone around you, that was not related to isolation, was deeper and cosmic in scale, included a sense that one could not be understood by or fully share their experiences and thoughts with others, and involved a lack of meaning in life and disconnection from greater purpose. Some definitions indicated that existential isolation (our fundamental aloneness in the universe) was a fact or a thought, but existential loneliness was generally defined as a feeling. These definitions generally aligned closely with the definitions which are available in existing literature, although a lack of purpose was more prominently mentioned by participants in the current study. This indicates that lay conceptualisations of existential loneliness are similar to those used in the academic literature and that participants were writing about experiences of the same phenomenon that we aimed to explore. A comparison of major elements of existential loneliness related in definitions given in this study and in the extant literature is given in Table 2 .
In the process of characterising existential loneliness, it is relevant to note that some participants described it as difficult to define and mentioned that it could overlap with loneliness that was not existential in nature ( “In ways there are similarties [sp] as […] with both I feel a sense of isolation but also that sense of wanting to feel wanted and needed.” – P55, 17-year-old, female), although most participants distinguished between forms of loneliness ( “For me, existential lonelieness [sp] is a far different can of worms compared to general loneliness.” – P106, 17-year-old, male) and provided rich descriptions of their experiences.
The process of reflexive thematic analysis ultimately produced four themes. Some include subthemes (indicated by subordinate numbering in Fig. 2 , e.g. 1.1., 2.1., 2.2.), which express distinct but cohesive parts of the theme. These themes are described below and visualised in Fig. 2 .
Visual representation of themes and subthemes
A feeling of complete disconnection
In the participants’ accounts, experiences of existential loneliness involved feelings of complete disconnection.
“[I]t’s a feeling of complete disconnection. I don’t know how to resolve it.” (P46, 36-year-old, female).
This was described as feeling alone in the world, feeling an essential separation from other people, and in some cases as feeling disconnected from the world and from oneself. Existential loneliness appeared to constitute a feeling of essential aloneness and separation.
“It made me feel separated entirely from society and other people. It was upsetting to realise that other people would not be able to relate to, or understand, my experiences and perceptions.” (P70, 18-year-old, nonbinary).
Others described this more simply as feeling separated from the people around them. People experiencing existential loneliness often felt that others did not care about them, that they were alienated from other people, and that they did not belong.
“I felt completely alone like there was no one there that would ever love me or care about me.” (P155, 20-year-old, female).
These experiences were often linked to being different from other people and feeling that one was not understood by others. This could be due to specific aspects of identity, to certain experiences, or to personality factors. In a broader sense, people touched on the inability to fully know or be fully known by another person, and the impossibility of being fully understood.
“I felt like no one else had lived my life, so no one else could relate to the experiences I had.” (P63, 25-year-old, female).
For some people, feelings of disconnection were so intense that they provoked derealisation.
“Felt like I was sort of outside of my body/the situation” (P61, 30-year-old, female).
Several participants also noted a longing for a deeper relationship with another person.
“[I]ts mostly a deeper longing for true soul connection that I experience, which I would equate more to existential loneliness.” (P87, 37-year-old, female).
One subtheme was developed in connection with this theme:
Perceptions and experiences of interpersonal disconnection
In describing experiences of existential loneliness, participants often described negative interpersonal experiences or perceptions. People described feeling inadequate or wrong.
“All of this combined caused me to think why can I not be normal. I felt as though everyone was on some new kind of programming and I hadn’t received the update.” (P74, 21-year-old, female).
There were also descriptions of being left out, not fitting in, and having no one to speak to. Participants described feeling invisible and unwanted, which may represent causes or symptoms of their feelings of disconnection.
“I felt invisible and alone” (P166, 60-year-old, female).
A deeper form of loneliness
Existential loneliness was depicted by participants as a form of loneliness which was more pervasive, deeply rooted, and impactful. This also involved descriptions of existential loneliness as a deeply bad experience which was “debilitating” (P3, 48-year-old, female), “far worse” (P31, 17-year-old, male), and “like a punch in the gut” (P72, 18-year-old, male).
“Existential loneliness feels like I’m alone in a void that only I can see and feel and it doesn’t exist or matter to others, however non-existential loneliness just makes me feel sad.” (P151, 18-year-old, genderfluid).
This was described in terms of feelings and, for some, a statement of fundamental separation as a fact. Some participants characterised existential loneliness as universal or inevitable.
“I think it was so overwhelming because it’s less a temporary state of being and more like an inherent part of human life. I think life is a distraction from the fact that we are all alone fundamentally (regardless of how depressing that sounds!).” (P8, 24-year-old, female).
This deeper aspect of existential loneliness was also represented through descriptions of it as longer-lasting or in some cases permanent. Existential loneliness would persist, lasting days, weeks, or longer, as opposed to other forms of loneliness which were depicted as more fleeting. Indeed, some reported existential loneliness as a constant. Accordingly, experiences of existential loneliness often involved a sense of hopelessness or endlessness.
“I felt completely lost and overwhelmed, like there was no light at the end of tunnel.” (P53, 29-year-old, female).
Relatedly, participants described existential loneliness as difficult or impossible to resolve. It was harder to deal with than non-existential forms of loneliness, which could be eased through social connection. However, a small number of participants reported ways of managing existential loneliness through religion, positive thinking, gratitude, and shared experiences with others. When this was possible, positive outcomes such as acceptance and a better understanding of oneself were described by some participants.
“Looking For ANYTHING to be thankful for even it were as simple as air to breath [sp] or the ability to blink, see and hear…… That is how I escaped being in that position.” (P93, 53-year-old, female).
Additionally, some participants indicated that existential loneliness coincided with experiences of loneliness that was not existential and suggested that other forms of loneliness may lead to existential loneliness when they become chronic, further indicating the characterisation of existential loneliness as a deeper form of loneliness.
“I think it would be easy for non-existential loneliness to culminate over a long time into existential, which has happened to me before.” (P116, 21-year-old, female).
Two subthemes were developed as part of this theme:
Alongside descriptions of existential loneliness as longer-lasting was the experience of existential loneliness as less context dependent than other forms of loneliness. “The existential loneliness I feel seems to always be inside me, but it can come to the surface when I go too long to try to remedy it. Non-existential loneliness is situational and usually tied to a certain date or event.” (P42, 32-year-old, female).
Existential loneliness was often depicted as lacking a clear cause – it was internal or constant, rather than arising due to a specific situation.
“It happens randomly. I will be happy one moment and then lonely the next.” (P85, 16-year-old, female).
However, while participants described existential loneliness as less context-bound, several interpersonal contextual elements did seem to drive experiences of existential loneliness: experiencing objective isolation, lacking social support, and periods of aloneness and, conversely, periods of socialising. Nonetheless, participants stressed that existential loneliness could arise despite strong social connections.
“Existential loneliness is like sitting in your room with a phone full of messages and phone calls from loved ones still feeling like you are completely alone in the world” (P159, 21-year-old, female).
Events which precipitated mental distress were also mentioned as relevant contextual factors for existential loneliness; see theme 4 for a full discussion.
Wider concerns about meaning and purpose
Existential loneliness was described as an experience in which many people reflected on meaning and purpose in life, particularly concerns about lacking meaning or purpose. This differed from other forms of loneliness, which were generally described more straightforwardly with respect to social and interpersonal relationships.
“Existential loneliness stems from me feeling like I’m going through the motions of life like a robot and my life is meaningless without connection to ground me” (P171, 29-year-old, male).
In this respect, existential loneliness appeared to involve or emerge in light of wider existential concerns about one’s place and purpose in the world. Indeed, some participants remarked that finding or reaffirming their purpose in life eased feelings of existential loneliness.
“Finding religion, love (romantically and socially), and an overall sense of purpose are essential for decreasing the power and frequency that existential loneliness can have on someone.” (P158, 22-year-old, male).
Cognitive evaluations and negative emotions are central elements
As described by the participants, existential loneliness appeared to involve cognitive and emotional facets: it was commonly linked to thinking or reflecting and was regularly described as involving sadness and other negative emotions. The experience was often described in times of thought or reflection. Several participants also described existential loneliness in respect to “overthinking”.
“I[t] typically comes about when I’m having a bad day or when I just start thinking a bit too much about life.” (P106, 17-year-old, male).
In some cases, these thoughts lingered on purpose in life, death, and the inevitability of being alone in the end. People often described feelings of insignificance alongside existential loneliness. Social comparison was another cognitive evaluation that was linked to existential loneliness, with descriptions of thoughts about being less connected or socially active than others.
“I imagined every room having people my age enjoying warmth and company. I could see myself finally arriving at my hall and knowing no one from the foyer to my room.” (P47, 72-year-old, male).
Negative emotions also featured in descriptions of existential loneliness. Existential loneliness was described as involving sadness and in some cases fear, dread, anger, and frustration.
“It was just sadness and frustration feeling alone, in a crowd of people.” (P85, 16-year-old, female).
Emptiness also characterised experiences of existential loneliness.
“I just remember the fear of wondering will I always feel this empty inside and if one would be there for me or with me.” (P99, 19-year-old, female).
Stress and mental health issues are perceived as relevant factors
Mental health issues, stress, and trauma appeared to be relevant to the experience of existential loneliness for participants. Participants regularly described feeling existentially lonely during times of mental ill health and mentioned mental health issues in discussing their experiences.
“I thought it was something more specifically triggered by my anxiety or depression.” (P131, 38-year-old, female).
Stress was also described as a driver of existential loneliness. Participants felt existentially lonely in times of stress, after difficult days or life periods, and following life transitions which may constitute stressful events.
“I have noticed it occurs when I go through some sort of prolonged stress in my life.” (P53, 29-year-old, female).
Additionally, traumatic life events and experiences of abuse were described as pertinent to existential loneliness. These included abusive relationships, assault, childhood neglect and maltreatment, and unspecified traumatic experiences.
“They can be triggered by periods of my life when I’m struggling with trauma of past experiences” (P60, 19-year-old, male).
In some cases, periods of generally strong emotion were described as precipitating existential loneliness. This may be linked to descriptions by a small number of participants that existential loneliness was a feeling that was specific to their adolescence or early adulthood.
“Now I look back on my young self and feel sad for her, but would like to tell her that it will be all right!” (P165, 64-year-old, female).
This is the first research, to our knowledge, which specifically explores lived experiences of existential loneliness without constraints on sample characteristics like age group or health. Experiences of existential loneliness in people from 16 to 72 years old were investigated via an online qualitative survey. Additionally, this research sheds light on knowledge, prevalence, and definitions of existential loneliness using data from 225 adults. While these individuals were recruited to a study on existential loneliness and may therefore have a higher likelihood of knowing the term, just over half (51%) initially knew what existential loneliness was and 83% of all participants had experienced the feeling. The majority of these individuals had also experienced other forms of loneliness but 7% had experienced only existential loneliness. Data from 175 individuals with lived experiences of existential loneliness characterised it as (1) a deeper form of loneliness, and (2) a feeling of deep disconnection, in which (3) cognitive evaluations and negative emotions are central elements, and (4) stress and mental health issues are perceived as relevant factors.
Defining the experience of existential loneliness
This study aimed to ascertain how people describe their experiences of existential loneliness and found that it was described as a deeper feeling of loneliness involving a sense of profound disconnection from other people, as well as in some cases from the world and from oneself. This study strengthens the conceptualisation of existential loneliness by adding empirical evidence of how individuals define and describe the construct. This is important given the lack of conceptual clarity regarding existential loneliness [ 13 ] and the relatively small amount of research on this dimension compared to social and emotional loneliness. It appeared that the central feature of existential loneliness experiences was a sense of profound disconnection from others; this is echoed in existing literature which characterises existential loneliness as “a total lack of relatedness” [ 13 , p. 157] and “a feeling of fundamental separateness from others and the wider world” [ 14 , p. 36]. While existing literature is inconsistent with regard to the definition and boundaries of this construct, through the present research, we suggest a core definition of existential loneliness as a negatively valent feeling of profound aloneness and separation from other people . Attempts to encapsulate the meaning of a construct may inevitably objectify and simplify it [ 58 ], but we suggest that this bottom-up conceptualisation, which centres lived experiences identified as existential loneliness, may be useful for research and practice. The present findings underline the complex, multidimensional nature of loneliness and indicate that attempts to manage loneliness will benefit from addressing feelings of deeper disconnection rather than solely providing opportunities for social interaction.
Existential loneliness was described as worse or more debilitating than other loneliness experiences, indicating the importance of considering this subgroup of experiences and their potential impact on wellbeing. Indeed, these experiences were described as involving negative emotional and cognitive characteristics such as sadness, dread, emptiness, and overthinking. This expands on previous research with older adults which indicates feelings of fear, guilt, and questioning life choices [ 36 , 38 , 39 ]. This research also noted a lack of purpose, which may link to behavioural outcomes if lacking purpose leads to a lack of motivation or action to pursue goals, interests, or responsibilities. Cognitive appraisals of social relationships are also a key facet of loneliness theory [ 59 ] and maladaptive social cognitive processes such as social hypervigilance appear to arise in response to loneliness [ 60 ], but this study suggests that reflecting or overthinking are also perceived as relevant for existential loneliness. The centrality of reflection and overthinking also indicates a potential role of rumination, which involves prolonged repetitive negative thinking and is associated with hopelessness, depression, and suicidality [ 61 ]. Existential loneliness may be related to a person’s awareness or belief in their fundamental separation from others, which may account for the heavier weighting of thought processes as a precipitating factor and the perception of it as a deeper experience.
This depth was also related to the perception of existential loneliness as longer-lasting, harder to resolve, and in some cases constant. This is concerning given that longer-lasting or recurring experiences of loneliness are associated with poorer health and mortality outcomes [ 62 , 63 ]. While some have suggested that existential loneliness is irresolvable [ 33 ], a portion of participants described ways to resolve the experience through positive thinking and shared experiences. In these cases, positive outcomes such as acceptance and self-knowledge were possible for some individuals, and these aligned with those suggested by existing literature and research with older adults [ 13 , 21 , 32 ]. However, this research indicated that existential loneliness was generally characterised by negative emotions. Consequently, it may be useful for research and interventions focusing on alleviating loneliness to consider existential loneliness as well as more socially driven dimensions.
An existential dimension of the loneliness experience
This research provides support for a multidimensional conceptualisation of loneliness with existential loneliness as one dimension or type. While various research conceptualises loneliness as including social, emotional, and existential dimensions [ 10 , 11 , 13 , 14 , 17 ], this conceptualisation has received relatively little empirical attention and existential loneliness has been particularly neglected in loneliness research. This study suggests that loneliness dimensions are subjectively separable. Descriptions of existential loneliness deviated from conceptualisations of social and emotional loneliness as described by Weiss [ 8 ] and from some aspects of loneliness experiences described in qualitative synthesis [ 7 ]. Namely, existential loneliness was deeper, less context-bound, and involved concerns about meaning and purpose, as opposed to relating more specifically to deficiencies in intimate relationships (emotional loneliness) or the larger social network (social loneliness).
Participants described existential loneliness as deeper, longer-lasting, harder to resolve, and less context-bound than other loneliness experiences. However, it did appear that existential loneliness is a recognisable dimension of loneliness, including key aspects of loneliness that have been outlined previously: it is generally aversive, labelled as loneliness by individuals experiencing it, can be impacted by social relationships, is associated with poor mental health, and is one of multiple forms of loneliness [ 64 ]. Moreover, whilst the majority of individuals who reported existential loneliness had also experienced another form of loneliness, 7% of participants reported that they had only experienced existential loneliness, indicating that dimensions of loneliness are subjectively separable for individuals experiencing them. These findings provide empirical support for a multidimensional conceptualisation of loneliness including existential loneliness. They also indicate that this dimension of loneliness is more persistent, suggesting that interventions and policy aimed at loneliness may benefit from targeting existential loneliness specifically.
The relevance of social relationships to existential loneliness
Relatedly, while definitions stressed that existential loneliness could occur despite the presence of others, it was clear that social relationships played an important role. Existential loneliness was described as less context-bound, persisting or arising without an obvious cause. However, in describing their experiences, participants often described times of objective isolation and aloneness. These elements indicate that existential loneliness is perceived as less tied to objective social network characteristics but is nonetheless impacted by social activity. However, it is not inherently linked to social isolation, as participants also described existential loneliness after periods of socialising. This was perhaps linked to the sense that others could not understand them and that they were separate despite the presence of objective social contact. Quantitative research suggests that having a smaller social network and not living with a partner each predict existential loneliness, although it reports inconsistent findings around having daily contact with one’s social network [ 6 , 18 ]. Similarly, existential loneliness has been described as more internal, rather than specifically related to relationship quality [ 65 ]. While the subjective experience of loneliness is separable from the objective circumstance of social isolation, they are associated [ 4 ]. Existential loneliness may represent a form of loneliness which is less directly tied to objective characteristics of the network and impacted more by internal cognitive processes, given that it relates to other people and the world generally, as opposed to deficits in specific relationships. Indeed, existing research indicates that experiences of loneliness differ in the degree to which they are related to specific social relationships versus being a generalised experience [ 7 , 8 , 66 ]. Future research should assess the degree to which existential loneliness is impacted by objective network characteristics, relative to other forms of loneliness.
Precipitating factors and duration of existential loneliness
Existential loneliness was experienced as constant by some participants, but many described it as a regularly occurring experience, highlighting its transience for some individuals. Existing loneliness research emphasises the role of prolonged loneliness on outcomes like mortality and mental health [ 62 , 63 ]. For some people, it appears that existential loneliness may function as a trait or mood which is relatively consistent, whereas for others it may be more of a state or emotion experience which is precipitated by certain events. Indeed, it has been suggested that a trait disposition towards existential isolation may occur if existential isolation states occur often or cannot be relieved [ 67 ]. In the current study, existential loneliness was depicted as less context-bound, with a lack of a clear cause in many situations, but various precipitating factors were mentioned. Being isolated or alone, socialising, periods of stress, and poor mental health were identified as particularly relevant. Existential loneliness has been identified as relevant for individuals with mental ill health [ 68 ] and this research indicates that it could be precipitated by anxiety, depression, trauma, and periods of stress; further exploring how existential loneliness might act a cause, consequence, or factor in experiences of poor mental health may help to delineate the relationship between these constructs. Boundary situations, in which people experience urgent and significant life-changing events such as serious illness, suffering, and death, are theorised to bring about existential loneliness [ 33 , 69 ] and this research suggests that challenging events, whether internal or external, may be particularly relevant for this dimension of loneliness.
Additionally, in a sample which included individuals from 16 to 72 years old, experiences of existential loneliness were described by a small proportion of individuals as occurring particularly during adolescence and young adulthood. Indeed, existential loneliness has been suggested to emerge in adolescence [ 44 ] and has been evidenced in adolescents and young adults [ 41 , 45 ]. This may be related to the finding that existential loneliness could occur following strong emotions, given that adolescence is a period of increased emotional intensity and older adults are more proficient at emotion regulation [ 70 , 71 ]. While there is little research focusing on existential loneliness in younger adults, this may be a pertinent developmental stage for these experiences which is deserving of further attention. As existential loneliness was described as long-lasting and potentially permanent in the current study, easing the experience in younger people may be particularly helpful to avoid ongoing distress and mitigate the personal and public health impact of loneliness.
Limitations and future directions
Although the findings of this research extend our understanding of the lived experience of existential loneliness across the lifespan, there are a number of limitations. While the use of online methods represents a novel and effective way to collect qualitative data, it excludes individuals without internet access or proficiency, who tend to comprise groups impacted by other sources of social inequality [ 72 ] and may obscure some aspects of in-person data collection such as tone of voice. This may also have contributed to the smaller proportion of older adults in this sample, although this group are strongly represented in other research on existential loneliness [ 15 , 32 , 34 , 36 , 37 , 39 ]. Future qualitative work might usefully focus on how mental health and trauma are involved in experiences of existential loneliness, while quantitative research is needed to clarify how well this conceptualisation of existential loneliness fits within a wider multidimensional model of loneliness and with dimensions such as social and emotional loneliness.
In summary, our results suggest that existential loneliness is a deep and pervasive form of loneliness involving feelings of deep disconnection. Reflection, overthinking, and negative emotions appear to play a role in these experiences, as do periods of stress, trauma, and poor mental health. A portion of individuals who had experienced existential loneliness had never experienced a non-existential form of loneliness, indicating that this represents a subjectively separable loneliness experience. This aspect of loneliness is deserving of further attention, which was specifically indicated by comments from several participants. Future research, policy, and practice around loneliness should take into account this deeply impactful but often overlooked dimension to improve our understanding of loneliness and inform supports for people experiencing loneliness.
The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are not publicly available as research participants did not consent to raw data transcripts being made available and the content may compromise participant confidentiality. Reasonable requests may be addressed to the corresponding author.
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The authors would like to acknowledge and thank the participants who contributed their time and experience to this research.
This work was supported by PMP’s doctoral funding from the Northern Ireland and North East Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council with support from the Department for the Economy Northern Ireland [Grant number ES/P000762/1]. The funder did not play a role in the development of this study.
Authors and affiliations.
Centre for Improving Health-Related Quality of Life, School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK
Phoebe E. McKenna-Plumley & Jenny M. Groarke
Centre for Identity and Intergroup Relations, School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK
Phoebe E. McKenna-Plumley & Rhiannon N. Turner
Department of Sociology, Durham University, Durham, UK
School of Psychology, University of Galway, Galway, Ireland
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McKenna-Plumley, P.E., Turner, R.N., Yang, K. et al. “It’s a feeling of complete disconnection”: experiences of existential loneliness from youth to older adulthood. BMC Psychol 11 , 408 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-023-01452-4
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What do we study when we study misinformation? A scoping review of experimental research (2016-2022)
We reviewed 555 papers published from 2016–2022 that presented misinformation to participants. We identified several trends in the literature—increasing frequency of misinformation studies over time, a wide variety of topics covered, and a significant focus on COVID-19 misinformation since 2020. We also identified several important shortcomings, including overrepresentation of samples from the United States and Europe and excessive emphasis on short-term consequences of brief, text-based misinformation. Most studies examined belief in misinformation as the primary outcome. While many researchers identified behavioural consequences of misinformation exposure as a pressing concern, we observed a lack of research directly investigating behaviour change.
School of Applied Psychology, University College Cork, Ireland
School of Psychology, University College Dublin, Ireland
- What populations, materials, topics, methods, and outcomes are common in published misinformation research from 2016–2022?
- The goal of this review was to identify the scope of methods and measures used in assessing the impact of real-world misinformation.
- We screened 8,469 papers published between 2016 and 2022, finding 555 papers with 759 studies where participants were presented with misinformation.
- The vast majority of studies included samples from the United States or Europe, used brief text-based misinformation (1–2 sentences), measured belief in the misinformation as a primary outcome, and had no delay between misinformation exposure and measurement of the outcome.
- The findings highlight certain elements of misinformation research that are currently underrepresented in the literature. In particular, we note the need for more diverse samples, measurement of behaviour change in response to misinformation, and assessment of the longer-term consequences of misinformation exposure.
- Very few papers directly examined effects of misinformation on behaviour (1%) or behavioural intentions (10%), instead measuring proxy outcomes such as belief or attitudes. Nevertheless, many papers draw conclusions regarding the consequences of misinformation for real-world behaviour.
- We advise caution in inferring behavioural consequences unless behaviours (or behavioural intentions) are explicitly measured.
- We recommend that policymakers reflect on the specific outcomes they hope to influence and consider whether extant evidence indicates that their efforts are likely to be successful.
In this article, we report a scoping review of misinformation research from 2016-2022. A scoping review is a useful evidence synthesis approach that is particularly appropriate when the purpose of the review is to identify knowledge gaps or investigate research conduct across a body of literature (Munn et al., 2018). Our review investigates the methods used in misinformation research since interest in so-called “fake news” spiked in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum vote. While previous publications have reflected critically on the current focus and future pathways for the field (Camargo & Simon, 2022), here we address a simple question: what do we study when we study misinformation? We are interested in the methods, outcomes, and samples that are commonly used in misinformation research and what that might tell us about our focus and blind spots.
Our review covers studies published from January 2016 to July 2022 and includes any studies where misinformation was presented to participants by researchers. The misinformation had to be related to real-world information (i.e., not simple eyewitness misinformation effects), and the researchers had to measure participants’ response to the misinformation as a primary outcome. As expected, we found an increase in misinformation research over time, from just three studies matching our criteria in 2016 to 312 published in 2021. As the number of studies has grown, so too has the range of topics covered. The three studies published in 2016 all assessed political misinformation, but by 2021, just 35% of studies addressed this issue, while the remainder examined other topics, including climate change, vaccines, nutrition, immigration, and more. COVID-19 became a huge focus for misinformation researchers in late 2020, and our review includes over 200 studies that used COVID-related materials. Below we discuss some implications and recommendations for the field based on our findings.
Call for increased diversity & ecological validity
It has been previously noted that the evidence base for understanding misinformation is skewed by pragmatic decisions affecting the topics that researchers choose to study. For example, Altay and colleagues (2023) argue that misinformation researchers typically focus on social media because it is methodologically convenient, and that this can give rise to the false impression that misinformation is a new phenomenon or one solely confined to the internet. Our findings highlight many other methodological conveniences that affect our understanding of misinformation relating to samples, materials, and experimental design.
Our findings clearly show that certain populations and types of misinformation are well-represented in the literature. In particular, the majority of studies (78%) drew on samples from the United States or Europe. Though the spread of misinformation is widely recognised as a global phenomenon (Lazer, 2018), countries outside the United States and Europe are underrepresented in misinformation research. We recommend more diverse samples for future studies, as well as studies that assess interventions across multiple countries at once (e.g., Porter & Wood, 2021). Before taking action, policymakers should take note of whether claims regarding the spread of misinformation or the effectiveness of particular interventions have been tested in their jurisdictions and consider whether effects are likely to generalise to other contexts.
There are growing concerns about large-scale disinformation campaigns and how they may threaten democracies (Nagasko, 2020; Tenove, 2020). For example, research has documented elaborate Russian disinformation campaigns reaching individuals via multiple platforms, delivery methods, and media formats (Erlich & Garner, 2023; Wilson & Starbird, 2020). Our review of the misinformation literature suggests that most studies don’t evaluate conditions that are relevant to these disinformation campaigns. Most studies present misinformation in a very brief format, comprising a single presentation of simple text. Moreover, most studies do not include a delay between presentation and measurement of the outcome. This may be due to ethical concerns, which are, of course, of crucial importance when conducting misinformation research (Greene et al., 2022). Nevertheless, this has implications for policymakers, who may draw on research that does not resemble the real-world conditions in which disinformation campaigns are likely to play out. For example, there is evidence to suggest that repeated exposure can increase the potency of misinformation (Fazio et al., 2022; Pennycook et al., 2018), and some studies have found evidence of misinformation effects strengthening over time (Murphy et al., 2021). These variables are typically studied in isolation, and we,therefore, have an incomplete understanding of how they might interact in large-scale campaigns in the real world. This means that policymakers may make assumptions about which messages are likely to influence citizens based on one or two variables—for example, a news story’s source or the political congeniality of its content—without considering the impact of other potentially interacting variables, such as the delay between information exposure and the target action (e.g., voting in an election) or the number of times an individual is likely to have seen the message. In sum, we would recommend a greater focus on ecologically valid methods to assess misinformation that is presented in multiple formats, across multiple platforms, on repeated occasions, and over a longer time interval. We also encourage future research that is responsive to public and policy-maker concerns with regard to misinformation. For example, a misinformation-related topic that is frequently covered in news media is the looming threat of deepfake technology and the dystopian future it may herald (Broinowski, 2022). However, deepfakes were very rarely examined in the studies we reviewed (nine studies in total).
Our review contributes to a growing debate as to how we should measure the effectiveness of misinformation interventions. Some have argued that measuring discernment (the ability to distinguish true from false information) is key (Guay et al., 2023). For example, in assessing whether an intervention is effective, we should consider the effects of the intervention on belief in fake news (as most studies naturally do) but also consider effects on belief in true news—that is, news items that accurately describe true events. This reflects the idea that while believing and sharing misinformation can lead to obvious dangers, not believing or not sharing true information may also be costly. Interventions that encourage skepticism towards media and news sources might cause substantial harm if they undercut trust in real news, particularly as true news is so much more prevalent than fake news (Acerbi et al., 2022). In our review, less than half of the included studies presented participants with both true and false information. Of those that did present true information, just 15% reported a measure of discernment (7% of all included studies), though there was some indication that this outcome measure has been more commonly reported in recent years. We recommend that future studies consider including both true items and a measure of discernment, particularly when assessing susceptibility to fake news or evaluating an intervention. Furthermore, policymakers should consider the possibility of unintended consequences if interventions aiming to reduce belief in misinformation are employed without due consideration of their effects on trust in news more generally.
Is misinformation likely to change our behaviour?
Many of our most pressing social concerns related to misinformation centre on the possibility of false information inciting behaviour change—for example, that political misinformation might have a causal effect on how we decide to vote, or that health misinformation might have a causal effect in refusal of vaccination or treatment. In the current review, we found the most common outcome measure was belief in misinformation (78% of studies), followed by attitudes towards the target of the misinformation (18% of studies). While it is, of course, of interest to examine how misinformation can change beliefs and attitudes, decades of research have shown that information provision is often ineffective at meaningfully changing attitudes (Albarracin & Shavitt, 2018) and even where such an intervention is successful, attitude change is not always sufficient to induce behavioural change (Verplanken & Orbell, 2022).
When assessing whether misinformation can affect behaviour, previous research has reported mixed results. Loomba et al. (2021) found that exposure to COVID vaccine misinformation reduced intentions to get vaccinated, but other studies have reported null or inconsistent effects (Aftab & Murphy, 2022; de Saint Laurent et al., 2022; Greene & Murphy, 2021; Guess et al., 2020). The current review highlights the small number of studies that have examined offline behavioural intentions (10% of papers reviewed) or offline behaviour itself (< 1% of studies) as an outcome of misinformation exposure. Our findings reveal a mismatch between the stated goals and methodology of research, where many papers conceive of misinformation as a substantial problem and may cite behavioural outcomes (such as vaccine refusal) as the driver of this concern, but the studies instead measure belief. We acknowledge that studying real-world effects of misinformation presents some significant challenges, both practical (we cannot follow people into the voting booth or doctor’s office) and ethical (e.g., if experimental presentation of misinformation has the potential to cause real-world harm to participants or society). Moreover, it can be exceptionally difficult to identify causal links between information exposure and complex behaviours such as voting (Aral & Eckles, 2019). Nevertheless, we recommend that where researchers have an interest in behaviour change, they should endeavour to measure that as part of their study. Where a study has only measured beliefs, attitudes, or sharing intentions, we should refrain from drawing conclusions with regard to behaviour.
From a policy perspective, those who are concerned about misinformation, such as governments and social media companies, ought to clearly specify whether these concerns relate to beliefs or behaviour, or both. Behaviour change is not the only negative outcome that may result from exposure to misinformation—confusion and distrust in news sources are also significant outcomes that many policymakers may wish to address. We recommend that policymakers reflect on the specific outcomes they hope to influence and consider whether extant evidence indicates that their efforts are likely to be successful. For example, if the goal is to reduce belief in or sharing of misinformation, there may be ample evidence to support a particular plan of action. On the other hand, if the goal is to affect a real-world behaviour such as vaccine uptake, our review suggests that the jury is still out. Policymakers may, therefore, be best advised to lend their support to new research aiming to explicitly address the question of behaviour change in response to misinformation. Specifically, we suggest that funding should be made available by national and international funding bodies to directly evaluate the impacts of misinformation in the real world.
Finding 1: Studies assessing the effects of misinformation on behaviour are rare.
As shown in Table 1, the most commonly recorded outcome by far was belief in the misinformation presented (78% of studies), followed by attitudes (18.31%). Online behavioural intentions, like intention to share (18.05%) or intention to like or comment on a social media post (5.01%), were more commonly measured than offline behavioural intentions (10.94%), like planning to get vaccinated. A tiny proportion of studies (1.58%) measured actual behaviour and how it may change as a result of misinformation exposure. Even then, just one study (0.13%) assessed real-world behaviour—speed of tapping keys in a lab experiment (Bastick, 2021)—all other studies assessed online behaviour such as sharing of news articles or liking social media posts. Thus, no studies in this review assessed the kind of real-world behaviour targeted by misinformation, such as vaccine uptake or voting behaviour.
Finding 2: Studies in this field overwhelmingly use short, text-based misinformation.
The most common format for presenting misinformation was text only (62.71% of included studies), followed by text accompanied by an image (32.41%). Use of other formats was rare; video only (1.84%), text and video (1.32%), images only (< 1%), and audio only (< 1%).
Of the studies that used textual formats (with or without additional accompanying media), the majority (62.72%) presented between one and two sentences of text. An additional 17.50% presented misinformation in a longer paragraph (more than two sentences), 12.92% presented a page or more, and 6.86% did not specify the length of misinformation text presented.
The most frequent framing for the misinformation presented was news stories (44.27%), misinformation presented with no context (33.47%), and Facebook posts (16.47%). Other less frequent misinformation framing included Twitter posts (7.64%), other social media posts (8.04%), other types of webpages (2.11%), fact checks of news stories (1.58%), and government and public communications (0.26%).
Very few studies presented doctored media to participants; a small number (1.19%) presented deepfake videos and 1.05% presented other forms of doctored media.
Fin ding 3: Most studies assess outcomes instantly.
Fewer than 7% of studies reported any delay between exposure to the misinformation and the measurement of outcome ( n = 52). While many did not specify exactly how long the delay was ( n = 30), most were less than a week; 1–2 minutes ( n = 4), 5–10 minutes ( n = 4), 1 day–1 week ( n = 13), 3 weeks ( n = 1) and 1–6 months ( n = 2).
Finding 4: Most participants were from the USA or Europe.
The majority of participants sampled were from the United States (49.93%), followed by Europe (28.19%) (see Table 2). All other regions each accounted for 6% or less of the total number of participants sampled, such as East Asia (5.53%), Africa (5.27%) and the Middle East (4.74%). Furthermore, 102 studies (13.26%) did not specify from where they sampled participants.
Finding 5: COVID-19 became a major focus of misinformation research.
Political misinformation was the most commonly studied topic until 2021, when COVID-related misinformation research became the dominant focus of the field (see Table 3 for a full breakdown of the topics included in the selected studies). Overall, experimental misinformation research is on the rise. Our review included one paper from 2016, 12 papers from 2017, 18 papers from 2018, 48 papers from 2019, 123 papers from 2020, 231 papers from 2021, and 122 papers for the first half of 2022.
Finding 6: Most studies do not report discernment between true and false misinformation.
In total, 340 studies (45.12%) presented participants with both true and false information. Of these studies, 52 (15.29%) reported a measure of discernment based on participants’ ability to discriminate between true and false information (e.g., the difference in standardised sharing intention scores between true and false items). Across the entire review then, fewer than 7% of studies report discernment between true and false information as an outcome. There was some indication that measurement of discernment is becoming more common over time; no studies included in the review reported a measure of discernment prior to 2019, and 48 out of the 52 studies that did measure discernment were published between 2020 and 2022.
A search was conducted to identify studies that presented participants with misinformation and measured their responses (e.g., belief in misinformation) after participants were exposed to misinformation. All studies must have been published since January 2016, with an English-language version available in a peer-reviewed journal. The final search for relevant records was carried out on the 16th of July, 2022. Searches were carried out in three databases (Scopus, Web of Science, and PsychINFO) using the search terms “misinformation” OR “fake news” OR “disinformation” OR “fabricated news” OR “false news.” The search strategy, inclusion criteria, and extraction templates were preregistered at https://osf.io/d5hrj/ .
There were two primary criteria for inclusion in the current scoping review. A study was eligible for inclusion if it (i) presented participants with misinformation with any potential for real-world consequences and (ii) measured participants’ responses to this misinformation (e.g., belief in the misinformation, intentions to share the misinformation) as a main outcome.
Studies were excluded if they presented participants with misinformation of no real-world consequence (e.g., misinformation about a simulated crime, fabricated stories about fictitious plane crashes, misinformation about fictional persons that were introduced during the course of an experiment). If the misinformation was only relevant within the narrow confines of an experiment, we considered the paper ineligible. Furthermore, studies were excluded if they presented participants with general knowledge statements (e.g., trivia statements) or if they presented participants with misleading claims that were not clearly inaccurate (e.g., a general exaggeration of the benefits of a treatment). Studies were also excluded if the misinformation was only presented in the context of a debunking message, as were studies where the misinformation was presented as a hypothetical statement (e.g., “imagine if we told you that …”, “how many people do you think believe that…”). Studies of eyewitness memory were excluded, as were any studies not published in English. Finally, opinion pieces, commentaries, systematic reviews, or observational studies were excluded.
Originally, only experimental studies were to be included in the review. However, upon screening the studies, it became apparent that distinguishing between experiments, surveys, and intervention-based research was sometimes difficult—for example, cross-sectional studies exploring individual differences in fake news susceptibility might not be classified as true experiments (as they lack control groups and measure outcomes at only one time point), but they were clearly relevant to our aims. To avoid arbitrary decisions, we decided to drop this requirement and instead included all articles that met the inclusion criteria.
Screening and selection process
The search strategy yielded a total of 18,333 records (see Figure 2 for a summary of the screening process). Curious readers may note that a Google Scholar search for the search terms listed above produces a substantially different number of hits, though the number will vary from search to search. This lack of reproducibility in Google Scholar searches is one of many reasons why Google Scholar is not recommended for use in systematic reviews, and the three databases employed here are preferred (Gusenbauer & Haddaway, 2020; also see Boeker et al., 2013; Bramer et al., 2016). Following the removal of duplicates ( n = 9,864), a total of 8,469 records were eligible to be screened. The titles and abstracts of the 8,469 eligible records were screened by six reviewers, in pairs of two, with a seventh reviewer resolving conflicts where they arose (weighted Cohen’s κ = 0.81). A total of 7,666 records were removed at this stage, as the records did not meet the criteria of the scoping review.
The full texts of the remaining 803 records were then screened by four reviewers in pairs of two, with conflicts resolved by discussion among the pair with the conflict (weighted Cohen’s κ = 0.68). Among the 803 records, 248 records were excluded (see Figure 2 for reasons for exclusion). Thus, there were 555 papers included for extraction, with a total of 759 studies included therein. An alphabetical list of all included articles is provided in the Appendix, and the full data file listing all included studies and their labels is available at https://osf.io/3apkt/ .
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Cite this Essay
Murphy, G., de Saint Laurent, C., Reynolds, M., Aftab, O., Hegarty, K. Sun, Y. & Greene, C. M. (2023). What do we study when we study misinformation? A scoping review of experimental research (2016-2022). Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review . ttps://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-130
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Porter, E., & Wood, T. J. (2021). The global effectiveness of fact-checking: Evidence from simultaneous experiments in Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 118 (37), e2104235118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2104235118
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Wilson, T., & Starbird, K. (2020). Cross-platform disinformation campaigns: lessons learned and next steps. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review , 1 (1) . https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-002
This project was funded by the Health Research Board of Ireland – COV19-2020-030. The funding body had no role in the design, interpretation, or reporting of the research.
The authors declare no competing interests.
This review protocol was exempt from ethics approval.
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that the original author and source are properly credited.
All materials needed to replicate this study are available via the Harvard Dataverse at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/X1YH6S and OSF at https://osf.io/3apkt/ .
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