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The social costs of seeking solitude

Tony Evans
Filed on October 5, 2021

Some people find solitude painful and boring, others find it to be pleasant and interesting

In 2014, a paper 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 finding doesn’t apply to everyone. People differ in the extent to which they tolerate (and even enjoy) spending time alone.

While some people consider solitude to be painful and boring, there are others who find solitude to be pleasant and interesting. But those who enjoy solitude — those of us who prefer a quiet evening at home over a night out with friends at a noisy bar — are often treated as outliers in modern life. In our research, we found that there can be negative social consequences for solitude-seekers.

In a newpaper, led by Dr Dongning Ren, we conducted a series of studies to investigate how people judge and act towards those who enjoy solitude (Ren & Evans, 2021). We found that people are more likely to ostracise individuals who enjoy solitude. In other words, solitude-seekers are more likely to be excluded from groups and teams. This happens because people assume that everyone involved (both the excluders and the ones being excluded) will be better off if solitude-seekers are left to their own devices. But ostracism can be a dangerous thing, even for people who enjoy time alone. And this means that solitude-seekers face extra challenges in work, and in life.

Leave me out of it

When we meet someone for the first time, 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 examined how people judge (and treat) those who enjoy solitude. If someone is seen as a solitude-seeker (they are the type of person who enjoys spending time alone), people make a lot of assumptions based on that information. They assume that solitude-seekers don’t care much about belonging to groups; that they are disagreeable and hard to get along with; and that they are, to put it bluntly, not warm. Importantly, these negative impressions have consequences. People are more likely to exclude and avoid interacting with solitude-seekers.

It’s easier for everyone this way

Why do people exclude solitude-seekers? We found that two beliefs helped to explain our results.

• First, self-interest: People believe that it would be difficult or unpleasant to spend time with solitude-seekers. When we exclude solitude-seekers, we are making things easier on ourselves by avoiding potentially awkward social situations.

• Second, concern for the solitude-seeker: People believe that solitude-seekers actually don’t want to be included and that they wouldn’t enjoy interacting with others. When we exclude solitude-seekers, to some extent we might think that we are doing them a favour.

• The problem is that these beliefs, particularly the idea that solitude-seekers want to be excluded, are probably wrong.

Everybody hurts

People assume that solitude-seekers are impervious to the pain of social exclusion. We assume that they don’t want to join our parties, or work with us on new projects. But almost everyone dislikes being excluded. Even subtle forms of exclusion, like being snubbed by an anonymous stranger in a laboratory experiment, can provoke a strong emotional response (Wesselmann et al., 2012). Although we didn’t test this directly in our studies, our intuition is that even die-hard solitude-seekers would have a negative reaction to being excluded.

When we learn about the personality traits of others, it’s only natural to try to predict what they will enjoy and how they want to be treated. The problem is that making predictions about people is hard, especially when you are trying to predict the reactions of someone you don’t know well. You should think twice before socially excluding solitude-seekers.

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. — Psychology Today

Tony Evans is an assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He conducts behavioural science research to understand how people make decisions involving trust, cooperation, and civility.





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