Involuntary celibate men, or “incels,” experience higher levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety, as well as lower levels of self-esteem, compared to non-incel men, according to new research published in Current Psychology. The new findings also indicate that incels often blame themselves when they are rejected and tend to feel more alone and isolated, which could make their experiences even more difficult.
Incel is a term used to describe a subculture of men who feel unable to find sexual or romantic partners despite their desire for them. Incels often express feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness towards women, society, and themselves, and some have been associated with violent and misogynistic behavior.
“I started getting interested in incel research when I discovered that there wasn’t any,” said study author Brandon Sparks, a lecturer in forensic psychology at Kingston University. “We were seeing more and more media coverage devoted to incels and decisions and opinions were being made without any empirical support.”
“Most of the early narrative revolved around incels, violence, and misogyny, but I wanted to break away from that, so I conducted a study on incels’ dating app experiences and mental health where I found quite depressing (literally) results. The present study is a follow-up to that: incels report a great deal of romantic rejection and poorer mental and relational health; could that be a result of a lack of social supports to help buffer against some of these issues?”
The researchers recruited a sample of 67 self-identified male incels through advertisements posted on the website Reddit. This sample was compared to 103 non-incel men who were recruited from an undergraduate student participant pool and a university-wide online forum. The participants completed a demographic questionnaire along with various assessments related to mental health, social support and loneliness, and attitudes related to sexuality and relationships.
Most of the participants (both incels and non-incels) were heterosexual, of European ancestry, in their mid-twenties, and politically neutral. However, twice as many incels reported currently using a dating app compared to non-incel males.
The researchers found that incels scored significantly higher on measures of depressive symptoms and anxiety but lower on a measure of self-esteem. They also tended to report greater levels of social and emotional loneliness along with lower levels of social support from friends and family.
Compared to non-incels, they also demonstrated a pattern of using more problematic coping strategies when experiencing romantic rejection. Incels were less likely to utilize positive reframing and emotional support but more likely to utilize negative coping strategies such as behavioral disengagement and self-blame. Additionally, incels reported much higher levels of self-critical rumination (e.g. “I always seem to be rehashing in my mind stupid things that I’ve said or done”).
“Incels experience a lot of duress on account of their involuntary celibacy,” Sparks told PsyPost. “They have more depressive and anxious symptoms and when faced with rejection, they are more likely to internalize that than non-incel men. In other words, they respond to the hurt of rejection by directing that inwards.
“I also found that incels report having fewer social supports and greater feelings of loneliness, which I believe may make these experiences of rejection worse as they may not have people to share these experiences with. Pain shared is pain divided. I think that is why we have seen the formation of an online community.”
The findings are in line with a previous study, which found that incels tend to have reduced psychological well-being and exhibit a greater tendency for interpersonal victimhood.
Interestingly, Sparks and his colleagues also found that incels scored higher on measures of sexual entitlement and belief in female sexual deceptiveness but were less likely than non-incel males to blame others when women rejected them. In other words, they tended to agree with statements such as “I should be permitted to have sex whenever I want it” and “Women date men simply for the material benefits they can get” but disagree with statements such as “When a girl rejects me, it’s because she’s a bitch/must be frigid.”
“I expected incels to engage in more internalization and externalization of blame when it comes to romantic rejection,” Sparks explained. “In other words, I expected them to react to it by putting both themselves and women down. What I found was that incels do more of the former, but they actually externalize less than non-incel men. This runs a bit counter to the narrative that incels are women-haters.”
Those who identified as incels were also more likely to characterize themselves as being excluded, scorned, unattractive, defeated, hateful, and resentful. Higher levels of these “incel traits” were strongly associated with a greater fear of being single, greater depressive and anxious symptoms, reduced social support, and greater loneliness. These traits have previously been linked to heightened paranoia as well.
The study used a statistical method called logistic regression to identify which factors were most important in predicting whether someone was an incel or not. The results showed that only two factors were significant: 1) having avoidant attachment, which means being uncomfortable with emotional closeness in relationships, and 2) having a low perceived mate value, which means feeling like you are not desirable as a romantic partner. When these two factors were considered together, the model was able to correctly identify 90% of group members as either incels or non-incels.
“One takeaway that some people tend to take is that becoming an incel makes you depressed (among other things),” Sparks said. “I don’t think we can really say that. We can just say that this population tends to have greater amounts of depressive symptoms; there is no evidence that adopting the incel label suddenly worsens one’s mental health.”
Unfortunately, some individuals within the incel subculture have turned to violence. Although many people are quick to condemn incels for their misogynistic views, understanding the complexities behind inceldom could help to prevent future harms.
“In terms of questions that need to be addressed, I think we are still in the process of gathering information that clinicians can use to better work with their incel clientele,” Sparks told PsyPost. “From there, we need to ask: what works? How do we help make an incel feel better about themselves and the world? I think there is a tendency to assume that incels are just after sex (it is mentioned in the name, after all), but incels have previously stated that they want intimacy, even if platonic, so they are more complex individuals than others make them out to be.”
“Further, I have been interviewing incels for a different project and a number have indicated that they no longer seek romantic relationships and want to find value in other domains that are important to them. This is a heterogeneous group, so it will take some time for researchers and clinicians to inform one another on how to help this population.”
“When I first began doing incel research, I experienced a great deal of reluctance from incels who did not trust academia/researchers as they worried they may try to twist incels’ responses to fit into an anti-incel narrative,” Sparks added. “As I have continued in this line of work, those concerns have become more diminished, which is good news for incel researchers.”
“However, some platforms still don’t allow us to recruit, so getting a large sample that can capture the diversity of the group can be quite difficult. For the incels that have volunteered to participate in research — whether mine or someone else’s — thank you for your willingness to do so. You have helped us have a more educated and nuanced discussion of inceldom.”
The study, “One is the loneliest number: Involuntary celibacy (incel), mental health, and loneliness“, was authored by Brandon Sparks, Alexandra M. Zidenberg, and Mark E. Olver.