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Time Alone Saps the Willpower of People Who Are Neurotic

Just thinking about being alone undermines the motivation of neurotic people

New research shows that just thinking about spending time alone seems to sap the motivation of people who are neurotic. Compared to when they think about spending time with other people, neurotic individuals can’t seem to summon the willpower to persist at tasks such as cleaning the whole house or reading a boring book to the end. Given some anagrams to solve, they solve fewer of them and spend less time trying.

Liad Uziel, a senior lecturer in the psychology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, authored the article that was published online on July 8, 2016 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. He explained that people who are neurotic “experience the world as threatening, problematic, and distressing.” Previous research has shown that for neurotic individuals, social life is fraught. They are drawn to other people because of their dependency and their strong need for a sense of belonging. At the same time, they are anxious, negative, and highly sensitive to rejection.

Professor Uziel is one of the few social scientists to ask about the place of solitude in the lives of people high in neuroticism.

For many people, spending time alone can be rewarding, offering opportunities for creativity, relaxation, and unselfconscious absorption in intellectual or spiritual contemplation. Those who savor their solitude often feel refreshed, recharged, and ready to go back out into the world of other people after spending time by themselves. Survey results from the Pew Research Center, based on a representative sample of American adults, showed that more than half said it was very important to be able to spend time completely alone, away from everyone else.

People who are neurotic, however, are unlikely to be among those who value time to themselves. Findings from two German studies showed that neurotic adults scored low on a scale measuring the desire to be alone, endorsing statements such as “Being alone quickly gets to be too much for me.” Does that mean that they are unlikely to feel re-energized after spending time on their own?

In the three studies conducted by Uziel, participants were primed to adopt a mindset about being alone or with other people. Participants got into an alone mindset by repeatedly completing the sentence, “When I am by myself, I…” They got into the social mindset by instead completing the sentence, “When I am in the company of others, I…”

Just thinking about being alone (compared to thinking about being with other people) led the neurotic participants to say that they were much less willing to do activities requiring persistence, patience, and self-control, such as organizing documents or standing in a long line. In two other studies in which they were asked to solve anagrams on a computer, they spent less time working on them and got fewer of them solved. Uziel speculated that without the potential to gain the approval of other people in a social setting, neurotic people just weren’t motivated to exert much of an effort.

Uziel focused on the ways in which alone time undermines the motivation of people who are neurotic. His results, though, show something else significant: People who have very few neurotic tendencies seem to thrive when they think about spending time by themselves. Across all three studies, they did at least as well, and sometimes better, when they had an alone mindset than a social one. They expressed a greater willingness to persist at tasks such as standing in a long line or reading an entire boring book. They spent more time on the anagrams task and solved more of them successfully.

For decades, social scientists have been studying the perils of loneliness. Explorations of the potential benefits of solitude are more rare. PsycINFO, the extensive database of research in the social sciences, includes more than 8,000 documents on the topic of loneliness, but fewer than 1,000 about solitude. There is much to be gained by redressing that imbalance. As Uziel noted, it “could provide new understandings of ways toward greater well-being.”