The Badass Personalities of People Who Like Being Alone
Four studies shatter stereotypes of people who like to be alone.
Posted Jun 21, 2017
There are people who like being alone, maybe even love it. What do you think they are like? Does your mind immediately leap to the misanthrope or the dreaded loner hiding away somewhere, plotting his next murder? As Anneli Rufus told us in her wonderful Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, those stereotypes don’t capture real loners. True loners are people who embrace their alone time. Those who lash out are typically alone against their will. They want to be included. They want to be loved by the objects of their desire. But they’ve been excluded and rejected instead. That exclusion and rejection (among other things) fuel their hostility and rage.
What’s the truth about people who like being alone? Thanks to some newly developed scales for measuring attitudes toward being alone, we now have research-based answers.
First, though, we need to understand what it means to like being alone. One sense of “alone” refers to spending time alone. The “Desire for Being Alone” scale, developed by Birk Hagemeyer and his colleagues, measures that.
People who score high on the desire to be alone AGREE with items such as:
- When I am alone, I feel relaxed.
- I like to be completely alone.
They DISAGREE with items such as:
- I feel uncomfortable when I am alone.
- Being alone quickly gets to be too much for me.
A second use of the word "alone" refers to people who are single. (I think this usage is misleading and inappropriate, but I’ll save that argument for another day.) Thinking about single life as something some people fear, Stephanie Spielmann and her colleagues developed a “Fear of Being Single” scale. I’m interested in the personality characteristics of people who are UNAFRAID of being single, so I just reversed their scale.
People who are UNAFRAID of being single DISAGREE with items such as:
- I feel anxious when I think about being single forever.
- If I end up alone in life, I will probably feel like there is something wrong with me.
Details of the Studies
Personality was measured for two groups of people in the “Fear of Being Single” studies. One group consisted of 301 people recruited online, with an average age of 29. Only 33 were married; 131 were single and not dating, and the others were dating. The other group was comprised of 147 Canadian undergraduates, with an average age of 19. Only two were married, 105 were single and not dating, and the others were dating. Results were averaged across both groups.
Two groups of German adults participated in the “Desire for Being Alone” studies, and unfortunately for people like me who are interested in single people, all the participants were coupled: They had been in a serious sexual relationship for at least a year. The first study included 476 participants (average age: 35), and the results were averaged across the men and the women. The second study included 578 heterosexual couples (average age: 42). Results were reported separately for the men and the women.
The “Big Five” personality characteristics were measured for all the participants in both sets of studies:
- Neurotic: tense, moody, worries a lot.
- Open: original, curious, imaginative.
- Extraverted: outgoing and sociable, talkative, assertive.
- Agreeable: considerate and kind, trusting, cooperative.
- Conscientious: reliable, organized, thorough.
The studies of people who like spending time alone also included a measure of their sociability, as measured by items such as, “I find people more stimulating than everything else.”
The studies of people unafraid to be single included measures of six more characteristics:
- Relationship-contingent self-esteem: The extent to which a person’s self-esteem is contingent on how their romantic relationship is going (when they have one).
- Need to belong: People who are high in the “need to belong” are especially likely to agree with statements such as, “I need to feel that there are people I can turn to in times of need.”
- Hurt feelings proneness: These are people whose feelings are easily hurt.
- Rejection sensitivity: People who are particularly sensitive to rejection are especially likely to expect to be rejected and feel anxious about it.
- Loneliness: Measured by items such as, “How often do you feel that you lack companionship?”
- Depression: Measured by items such as, “I felt that I could not shake off the blues even with help from my family or friends.”
If our stereotypes about people who like being alone were true, then we should find that they are neurotic and closed-minded. In fact, just the opposite is true: People who like spending time alone, and who are unafraid of being single, are especially unlikely to be neurotic. They are not the tense, moody, worrying types.
People who like spending time alone, and people who are unafraid of being single, are also more likely than others to be open-minded. People who are unafraid of being single are more agreeable than people who are afraid of being single. (People who like spending time alone are no more or less agreeable than people who don’t.) And people who are unafraid of being single are also more conscientious than those who are afraid. (The results were not consistent for people who like spending time alone.)
The question I am asked most often about the personality of people who are single is whether they are more introverted. The one relevant study suggests that they probably are. But research on single people typically includes all single people, whether they want to be single or not. The studies I’m describing here tell us about people who are unafraid of being single (or who like spending time alone).
People who are unafraid of being single were more extraverted than those who are afraid of being single. Perhaps this finding is consistent with research showing that single people, on average, have more friends than married people do, and do more to maintain relationships with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. But again, the research on the social ties of single people includes all single people, not just those who are unafraid of being single.
People who like spending time alone were not any more or less extraverted than those who do not, but they did score as less sociable. Those two scales (extraversion and sociability) measure similar things so it is odd that they did not produce consistent findings.
All the other personality characteristics were measured only in the studies of people who are unafraid of being single — and the results were resoundingly affirming. People who are unafraid of being alone are not overly sensitive to rejection and they don’t get their feelings hurt too easily. When they are in romantic relationships, their own self-esteem does not depend on how those relationships are faring. They do not have a particularly strong need to belong. And they are less likely to be lonely or to be depressed.
People who are unafraid of being single are not just talking a good game. Other studies have looked at their behaviors and those results are affirming, too. People who are unafraid of being single have standards. For example, in speed dating events, they give their contact information to fewer people. And when they do get into a romantic relationship and find it unsatisfying, they are more likely to break it off than people who are afraid of being single.
Despite all that is good and affirming about people who are unafraid of being single, they cannot expect to be celebrated or even respected by other people. People who like being single, or choose to be single, are threatening cherished worldviews about what people should want and how they should feel. Other people evaluate them more harshly than single people who wish they were coupled – even expressing more anger toward them.
As more and more people openly embrace their single lives, maybe things will change. Happy singles will become part of our cultural landscape, and those who are threatened by them will recede to the fringes.