Why Lonely People Stay Lonely

Young woman sitting on sofa

Nobody likes feeling lonely, and some recent research suggests that the ache of isolation isn’t only a psychological problem; unwanted solitude impacts physical health, too. Loneliness increases a person’s risk of mortality by 26 percent, an effect comparable to the health risks posed by obesity, according to a study published this spring.

And because of this new evidence of the serious ramifications of loneliness, some researchers are investigating what it is, exactly, that makes lonely people stay lonely. In particular, could some behavior be at the root of their isolation? One long-held theory has been that people become socially isolated because of their poor social skills — and, presumably, as they spend more time alone, the few skills they do have start to erode from lack of use. But new research suggests that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the socially isolated. Lonely people do understand social skills, and often outperform the non-lonely when asked to demonstrate that understanding. It’s just that when they’re in situations when they need those skills the most, they choke.

In a paper recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Franklin & Marshall College professor Megan L. Knowles led four experiments that demonstrated lonely people’s tendency to choke when under social pressure. In one, Knowles and her team tested the social skills of 86 undergraduates, showing them 24 faces on a computer screen and asking them to name the basic human emotion each face was displaying: anger, fear, happiness, or sadness. She told some of the students that she was testing their social skills, and that people who failed at this task tended to have difficulty forming and maintaining friendships. But she framed the test differently for the rest of them, describing it as a this-is-all-theoretical kind of exercise.

Before they started any of that, though, all the students completed surveys that measured how lonely they were. In the end, the lonelier students did worse than the non-lonely students on the emotion-reading task — but only when they were told they were being tested on their social skills. When the lonely were told they were just taking a general knowledge test, they performed better than the non-lonely. Previous research echoes these new results: Past studies have suggested, for example, that the lonelier people are, the better they are at accurately reading facial expressions and decoding tone of voice. As the theory goes, lonely people may be paying closer attention to emotional cues precisely because of their ache to belong somewhere and form interpersonal connections, which results in technically superior social skills.

But like a baseball pitcher with a mean case of the yips or a nervous test-taker sitting down for an exam, being hyperfocused on not screwing up can lead to over-thinking and second-guessing, which, of course, can end up causing the very screwup the person was so bent on avoiding. It’s largely a matter of reducing that performance anxiety, in other words, and Knowles and her colleagues did manage to find one way to do this for their lonely study participants, though, admittedly, it is maybe not exactly applicable outside of a lab. The researchers gave their volunteers an energy-drink-like beverage and told them that any jitters they felt were owing to the caffeine they’d just consumed. (In actuality, the beverage contained no caffeine, but no matter — the study participants believed that it did.) They then did the emotion-reading test, just like in the first experiment. Compared to scores from that first experiment, there was no discernible difference in scores for the non-lonely, but the researchers did see improvement among the lonely participants — even when the task had been framed as a social-skills test.

It may be difficult to trick yourself into believing your nerves are from caffeine and not the fact that you really, really, really want to make a good impression in some social setting, but there are other ways to change your own thinking about anxiety. One of my recent favorites is from Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks, who found that when she had people reframe their nerves as excitement, they subsequently performed better on some mildly terrifying task, like singing in public. At the very least, this current research presents a fairly new way to think about lonely people. It’s not that they need to brush up on the basics of social skills — that they’ve likely already got down. Instead, lonely people may need to focus more on getting out of their own heads, so they can actually use the skills they’ve got to form friendships and begin to find a way out of their isolation.