5 Kinds of People Who Withdraw From Social Life

Loners come in different varieties, including healthy ones.

Posted Apr 26, 2018

T.Den/Shutterstock
Source: T.Den/Shutterstock

Some people just love to be with other people. They like to live with them, socialize with them, and spend almost all their time with them. No one worries about them.

Other people spend a lot of time off by themselves, and people do worry about them. Researchers focused most of their early concern on children who seem withdrawn, but now they are paying more attention to young adults.

Psychology professor Julie Bowker and her colleagues believe we need to get a lot more thoughtful about people who are not very involved in social life. They are not all the same: In a 2017 article, the researchers focused on three different kinds of people who withdraw for different reasons, and acknowledged that there is at least one more type that they did not include in their study. I think there’s also a fifth type.

You can probably generate some of the findings yourself: How do you think about people who are withdrawn? What do you surmise about their personalities?  

The study was straightforward. Close to 300 young adults (ages 18-25) answered a questionnaire that measured relevant personality characteristics and motivations, as well as some of the positive and negative behaviors and experiences that might be linked to social withdrawal.

Here are three kinds of people who withdraw from social life, as documented by the study:

1. People who are shy.

These are people who agree with statements such as, “Sometimes I turn down chances to hang out with other people, because I feel too shy.”

2. The avoiders.

They agree with statements such as, “I try to avoid spending time with other people.”

3. The unsocial.

They agree with statements such as, “I don’t have a strong preference for being alone or with others.”

All three types, the authors believe, represent distinct kinds of people. They withdraw from social interaction for different reasons. But the third type, the “unsocial," as the authors call them, may be especially interesting, because of the possibility that we don’t need to worry about them. Maybe they don’t face the same kinds of psychological risks as the shy people, who perhaps want to be more involved with other people than they are, or the avoiders, who are actively trying to stay away from other people. (I’m not sure why the authors did not include introverts in their study.)

The authors looked into four different kinds of negative behaviors or experiences that might be linked to different kinds of withdrawal:

  • Physical aggression. People who are physically aggressive agree with statements such as, “When someone makes me really angry, I push or shove the person.”
  • Relationship aggression. Relationship aggression isn’t physical. People who practice relationship aggression agree with statements such as “When I am not invited to do something with a group of people, I will exclude those people from future activities.”
  • Anxiety sensitivity. People with anxiety sensitivity are afraid of being afraid. They agree with statements such as, “It scares me when I have trouble getting my breath.”
  • Social anhedonia. This is an inability to get pleasure from experiences that are ordinarily pleasurable. People who experience social anhedonia agree with statements such as, “Having close friends is not as important as many people say.”

One very positive characteristic was also measured:

  • Creativity. Creative people agree with statements such as “I have a vivid imagination.”

The researchers also assessed two very different overarching psychological systems, corresponding to people who tend to approach things they like and people who are more motivated to avoid things they don’t like:

  • Behavioral activation system. People with a strong behavioral activation system have a goal of going for what they want. They agree with statements such as “When I go after something, I use a ‘no holds barred’ approach” and “I’m always willing to try something new if I think it will be fun.”
  • Behavioral inhibition system. People with a strong behavioral inhibition system have a goal of avoiding unpleasant things. They agree with statements such as “I feel pretty worried or upset when I think or know somebody is angry at me,” and “I worry about making mistakes.”

The Findings

The three kinds of people who withdraw from social life — shy people, avoiders, and the unsocial— have some things in common. The measures of shyness, avoidance, and being unsocial are all inter-correlated. What the authors wanted to understand was what made each of these three kinds of people unique.

So instead of looking just at the correlations of shyness, avoidance, and being unsocial with all the other measures (aggression, creativity, etc.), they looked at what was unique about each type, which is what is left after you set aside (statistically) what they have in common with the others.

Here are the psychological profiles of people who are shy, avoidant, and unsocial:

Shy people:

  • Are anxious about anxiety. They are afraid of being afraid.
  • Are more likely to engage in physical aggression than people who are not shy.
  • Are more likely to engage in relationship aggression than people who are not shy.
  • Do not get as much pleasure out of ordinarily pleasurable experiences.
  • Are less creative than people who are not shy.
  • Try to avoid unpleasant things (that’s the “behavioral inhibition system”).
  • Are not very motivated to go for what they want (they get low scores on the “behavioral activation system”).

Avoidant people:

  • Are more likely to engage in physical aggression than people who are not avoidant.
  • Are more likely to engage in relationship aggression than people who are not avoidant.
  • Do not get as much pleasure out of ordinary pleasurable experiences.
  • Are less creative than people who are not avoidant.
  • Are not very motivated to go for what they want (they get low scores on the “behavioral activation system”).

Unsocial people:

  • Are less likely to engage in physical aggression than people who are not unsocial.
  • Are less likely to engage in relationship aggression than people who are not unsocial.
  • Are more creative.
  • Are not very motivated to go for what they want (they get low scores on the “behavioral activation system”).

The profiles of the shy and avoidant people are fairly similar. Both are more aggressive and less creative than people who are not shy or avoidant. Both report getting less pleasure out of experiences that are ordinarily pleasurable. The shy people, but not the avoidant ones, are anxious about anxiety. Oddly, the avoidant people do not score particularly low on avoiding unpleasant things, whereas the shy people do.

What really stands out from these profiles, though, is how different the unsocial people are, and how positive almost all their differences are. Unsocial people are especially unlikely to be aggressive and especially likely to be creative. True, they don’t have a very gung-ho attitude — for example, they don’t take a "no holds barred" approach to things they want, and they aren’t all that interested in trying new things — but that is the only thing about them that could even remotely be considered to be a negative. We do not need to worry about people who are unsocial.

What’s missing? Two more kinds of people who withdraw from social life

The authors note that they did not include in their study another category of people who withdraw from social life:

4. People rejected by their peers.

These people withdraw from social life because they are isolated by their peer group. They agree with statements such as, “Sometimes others don’t want me to hang out with them.” They are not choosing to be alone; they’ve been rejected. Although the Bowker study provides no findings relevant to this group, my guess is that they are the people most at risk for serious issues such as psychological problems and committing acts of violence.

5. People who enjoy spending time alone.

The unsocial people we discussed previously don’t mind being alone, but it is not a strong preference. Another category of people embrace solitude. They savor the time they have to themselves. There is not nearly as much research on them as there should be, but what we do know so far is that they have some very positive characteristics in their personality profiles. For example, they are very unlikely to be neurotic and very likely to be open-minded.

In Conclusion

This is just one study, and it is not the kind of study that can tell us whether, for example, an avoidant personality causes people to be more aggressive and less creative. The results are just suggestive, but what they suggest is that it is not enough to know that a person seems to withdraw from social life. It is also important to know why. People who spend a lot of time alone because they are fearful or deliberately avoiding other people — or, especially, because they have been rejected — are very different from those who are alone because they just don’t care that much about socializing with others, or because they love their time alone.

There are lots of different reasons for spending time away from other people. Some are worrisome, and others are admirable.

References

Bowker, J. C., Stotsky, M. T., & Etkin, R. G. (2017). How BIS/BAS and psycho-behavioral variables distinguish between withdrawal subtypes during emerging adulthood. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 283-288.