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Loneliness

How Low Self-Control Leads to Loneliness

The role of social norms and ostracism.

Key points

  • Personality traits, especially low extraversion and agreeableness, are important predictors of loneliness.
  • Self-control is essential to success in life, and that’s true of social interactions as well.
  • People may ostracize those who are low in self-control because they can't be trusted to observe social norms.

We humans are social creatures, and we need close personal relationships to flourish. When our connections with others are lacking, we feel lonely. Not only does loneliness feel bad, but it also harms our physical and psychological health in the long run.

The feeling of loneliness probably evolved as an unpleasant state that drives us to seek out companionship. While our interconnected world can make it easier to meet many more people than has ever been possible before, the anonymity of modern life can also make it more difficult than ever to get to know others.

Many people have rich and fulfilling social lives, but many others suffer from chronic loneliness. One study found that two-thirds of Americans reported feeling moderate-to-severe loneliness, and another reported that a third of Britons felt lonely “often or very often.” How do we account for such widespread experiences of health-threatening loneliness in modern society?

The Role of Personality Traits

Previous research has focused on personality traits as predictors of loneliness. The standard model of personality is known as the Big Five, and it consists of the following five traits:

You can probably guess which of these personality traits are fairly good predictors of loneliness. People who are low in extraversion (that is, they’re introverted or sometimes socially awkward) and those who are low in agreeableness (that is, they don’t play well with others) tend to report high levels of loneliness.

However, personality only goes so far in predicting who will be lonely. Human psychology is complex, and there are always multiple causes for any phenomenon. This observation has led University of Tilburg (in the Netherlands) psychologist Olga Stavrova and colleagues to ask whether they could identify an additional source of loneliness.

Self-Control and Success in Life

Self-control is about aiming for long-term rather than short-term goals, and it’s an essential ingredient for success in life. For example, you need a good education to be successful in modern society, and that means keeping your nose to the books even when your friends are out having fun. Ample research shows that people with good self-control tend to make more money, have better health, and are happier with their lives overall than those who have difficulties controlling their impulses.

Self-control is key to having a successful social life as well. Getting along with others means putting up with other people’s annoying habits, keeping to socially acceptable topics of conversation, going along with the wishes of the group, and showing a keen interest in those we’re associating with.

Wallflowers envy partiers for their “natural” abilities to get along and have fun with others. But in fact, social skills are learned. True extraverts picked up these skills early in childhood, and they’re so thoroughly practiced that they seem like instincts. But even lonely hearts can learn social skills that can help them break through their shell of solitude.

As Stavrova and colleagues point out, self-control lies at the heart of any successful social interaction. Outgoing people put the needs and interests of their companions ahead of their own. In contrast, lonely people, in their failed attempts at interacting with others, tend to focus on their own feelings and desires.

Because lonely people tend to be unpleasant companions, they drive away the very people they so desperately want to get to know. This tendency to mull over current unhappy feelings instead of building toward happier experiences in the near future stems from a lack of self-control, Stavrova and colleagues maintain.

Lack of Self-Control and Ostracism

These observations led Stavrova and colleagues to propose the following hypotheses about people who are low in self-control:

  • They tend to be lonelier than those higher in self-control.
  • They’re perceived by others as untrustworthy.
  • They’re ostracized because others don’t trust them to play by the rules of social engagement.

The researchers tested these hypotheses in a series of studies.

Study 1 consisted of a survey that measured respondents’ degree of self-control and loneliness as well as their Big Five personality traits. The results were consistent with prior findings and with the hypothesis. People who reported high levels of loneliness tended to score low on extraversion and agreeableness, suggesting they lack skills for successful social interactions. But many of these people also reported low self-control, indicating that this is a source of loneliness above and beyond Big Five traits.

Study 2 was a diary study in which participants reported self-control failures and feelings of loneliness on a daily basis. The results showed that self-control failures on one day predicted greater feelings of loneliness on the next day, suggesting that low self-control leads to loneliness and not the other way around.

Study 3 tested the hypothesis that others ostracize people with low self-control because they perceive them as untrustworthy. Participants read a story about a person browsing through an electronics store who either buys a new phone on a whim or else looks at phones but doesn’t buy one. The participants judged the person who acted impulsively as untrustworthy, and they also indicated that they would likely avoid making friends with them.

Study 4 used the experiential sampling method, in which participants receive text messages at random intervals during their daily lives, prompting them to respond to a survey. Each time, participants noted whether they’d recently had any momentarily lapses in self-control, and whether anyone knew about it or not. They also indicated whether they were currently feeling lonely or ostracized. Again as predicted, those who reported a public failure of self-control tended to feel more lonely and ostracized.

Together, these four studies provide strong evidence for Stavrova and colleague’s claim that people’s lack of self-control leads them to be ostracized by others, thus causing them to feel lonely. If you find yourself saying and doing things that push people away from you, you can get help to learn self-control techniques and social interaction skills. With these, you can pull yourself out of the darkness of loneliness and into the light of meaningful relationships.

References

Stavrova, O., Ren, D., & Pronk, T. (2021). Low self-control: A hidden cause of loneliness? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/01461672211007228

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