The social costs of seeking loneliness

In 2014, an article published in Science found that many people would rather experience a painful electric shock than be left alone with their own thoughts (Wilson et al., 2014). But this does not apply to everyone. People differ in the extent to which they tolerate (and even enjoy) spending time alone.

While some people find loneliness painful and boring, others find loneliness enjoyable and interesting. But those who enjoy seclusion – those of us who prefer a quiet evening at home to a night with friends in a noisy bar – are often treated as outliers in modern life. In our research, we found that there can be negative social consequences for people seeking loneliness.

People differ in the way they like solitary activities.

Source: ryanniel-masucol-1503495 / Pexels

In a new paper, led by Dr Dongning Ren, we conducted a series of studies to study how people judge and act towards those who enjoy loneliness (Ren & Evans, 2021). We have found that people are more likely to ostracize people who enjoy loneliness. In other words, people seeking solitude are more likely to be excluded from groups and teams. This happens because people assume that everyone involved (both the excluded and the excluded) will be better off if the solitude seekers are left on their own. But ostracism can be a dangerous thing, even for people who like to spend time alone. And that means people seeking solitude face additional challenges at work and in life.

Leave me out of this

When we first meet someone, we form an impression of that person and use that impression to judge what activities they might enjoy and how we should treat them. In our studies, we looked at how people judge (and treat) those who enjoy loneliness. If someone is seen as a loneliness seeker (the kind of person who enjoys spending time alone), people make a lot of assumptions based on this information. They assume that solitude seekers don’t care much about belonging to groups; that they are unpleasant and difficult to live with; and they are, to put it bluntly, no warm. Above all, these negative impressions have consequences. People are more likely to exclude and avoid interacting with those seeking solitude.

It’s easier for everyone that way

Why do people exclude those seeking solitude? We found that two beliefs helped explain our results.

  • First, self-interest: people believe that it would be difficult or unpleasant to spend time with people seeking solitude. When we exclude those seeking solitude, we make it easier for ourselves by avoiding potentially awkward social situations.
  • Second, the loneliness seeker’s concern: People believe that loneliness seekers actually don’t want to be included and that they wouldn’t enjoy interacting with others. When we exclude those seeking solitude, to some extent we might think that we are doing them a favor.

The problem is, these beliefs, especially the idea that people seeking loneliness want to be excluded, are probably wrong.

Everyone is suffering

People assume that those seeking solitude are immune to the pain of social exclusion. We assume they don’t want to join our parties or work with us on new projects. But almost everyone doesn’t like to be left out. Even subtle forms of exclusion, such as being snubbed by an anonymous stranger in a lab experiment, can elicit a strong emotional response (Wesselmann et al., 2012). While we haven’t tested this directly in our studies, our hunch is that even die-hard lonely seekers would react negatively to exclusion.

When we learn about the personality traits of others, it is quite natural to try to predict what they will appreciate and how they wish to be treated. The problem is, it’s hard to make predictions about people, especially when you’re trying to predict the reactions of someone you don’t know well. You should think twice before socially excluding those seeking solitude.

They might be happy to be invited to your next party (or to work with you on your next project), and you might be happy to have them join them.

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