By Emily Reynolds
Loneliness can be a vicious circle. As previous research has shown, your personality can increase your chances of being lonely, and loneliness can affect your personality. We also know that self-centeredness can increase loneliness, that self-awareness can reduce loneliness, and that even warming up on a cold day can alleviate the need for social interaction.
Loneliness therefore depends heavily on personality factors as well as social factors such as discrimination, restricted access to transport and a lack of social cohesion. And a new study published in Bulletin for Personality and Social Psychology, identifies another individual factor: low self-control. According to Olga Stavrova and her team from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, failure to control oneself can have serious social consequences – leading to exclusion and ultimately loneliness.
The first study used data from 2,710 participants who took part in a longitudinal cross-sectional survey in the Netherlands. The team looked at a specific point in the study when participants answered questions about self-control and how much they agree with statements like “I can resist temptation” and loneliness, and with statements like “I have a feeling” the emptiness around me ”.
The researchers also looked at the participants’ Big Five personality traits, as well as demographic variables previously associated with loneliness – gender, age, whether the participant lived alone or with partners or children, education, employment status, and income.
The results showed that lower self-control predicts higher loneliness, an effect similar in magnitude to some other predictors of loneliness, such as: .
A second study looked at everyday feelings of loneliness. Participants did a daily journaling exercise and wrote daily for a week about how lonely they had felt and how many times they had given in to temptation. They also performed a self-regulation “trait” level measurement to measure baseline levels.
Again, those with less self-control tended to be lonely. In addition, those who reported failure of self-control one day also reported loneliness in their diary the next day more often.
Why can lower self-control lead to loneliness? The researchers wondered whether low self-control indicates that someone is not trustworthy and that they are more likely to be ostracized by others. So in another study they asked participants to read a short paragraph about Robin, a (fabricated) former participant who had trouble saving money but ended up in an expensive electronics store anyway. On the low self-regulation condition, participants read that Robin had bought a new smartphone – although he did not need one – while on the high self-regulation condition, participants heard that Robin had resisted the temptation and left the store empty-handed.
They were then asked to introduce themselves that Robin was a new employee and indicate how likely they would be excluding him and whether they thought he was likely to care for or make time for others or to display behaviors that could hurt others.
Consistent with their predictions, the team found that participants with the low self-control condition were more likely to marginalize Robin, which could be explained in part by the fact that they also found him to be less prosocial and more selfish and potentially harmful in behavior. A final study found that participants with low self-control reported themselves having had greater experiences with exclusion and greater loneliness.
Overall, the results suggest that low self-control can increase loneliness – and that this increase is partly due to social ostracism due to selfish impulses or potentially harmful behavior. This makes sense – you’re more likely to be loyal to a partner or to cooperate at work or in a game when you have higher levels of self-control, which makes you seem more desirable as a friend, partner, or social contact.
There are other explanations, however. People with little self-control can be marginalized yourself – If you feel guilty or ashamed after a lack of self-control, you may want to isolate yourself to deal with these feelings rather than being specifically excluded by others.
Future work could investigate different types of self-control errors. For example, if you fail to follow a diet, it only affects you – would that lead to the same type of ostracism that someone who cannot stop cheating on their partner experiences? The team suggests that loneliness is more likely (or only) to occur when our actions have social implications; A closer look at these dynamics can shed more light on the relationship between exclusion, self-control, and our social lives.
– Low self-control: a hidden cause of loneliness?
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles