Loneliness can be something of a vicious cycle. As previous research has suggested, your personality can increase your likelihood of being lonely, and loneliness can impact your personality. We also know that self-centredness can increase loneliness, that being true to yourself can reduce loneliness, and that even warming yourself up on a cold day can ease cravings for social contact.
Loneliness, then, is highly dependent on personality factors as well as social factors such as discrimination, limited access to transport, and lack of social cohesion. And a new study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, identifies another individual factor: low self-control. According to Olga Stavrova and team from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, failures of self-control can have serious social ramifications — leading to ostracism and, eventually, loneliness.
The first study used data from 2,710 participants taking part in a longitudinal survey in the Netherlands. The team looked specifically at one time point in the study, where participants had answered questions on self-control, indicating how much they agreed with statements like “I am good at resisting temptation”, and loneliness, responding to statements such as “I have a sense of emptiness around me”.
The researchers also examined participants’ Big Five personality traits, as well as demographic variables that have been previously associated with loneliness — gender, age, whether or not 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 size to that of some other predictors of loneliness such as low levels of extraversion and agreeableness (however, low emotional stability was a much stronger predictor than low self-control).
A second study looked at day-to-day feelings of loneliness. Participants took part in a daily diary exercise, writing every day for a week about how lonely they had felt, and how often they had given in to a temptation. They also completed a measure of “trait” levels of self-control to measure base levels.
Again, those with lower trait self-control were more likely to experience loneliness. Furthermore, those who reported failures in self-control on one day were also more likely to report loneliness in their diary on the subsequent day.
Why might lower self-control lead to loneliness? The researchers wondered whether low self-control signals that someone is not trustworthy, and so makes them more likely to be ostracised by others. So in another study, they asked participants to read a short paragraph about Robin, a (fabricated) previous participant who was having problems saving money but who nonetheless had ended up in an expensive electronics shop. In the low self-control condition, participants read that Robin had bought himself a new smartphone — even though he didn’t need one — while the high self-control condition heard that Robin had resisted temptation and left the shop empty-handed.
They were then asked to imagine that Robin was a new co-worker and to indicate how likely they were to exclude him, and whether they thought he was likely to care for or take time for others, or engage in behaviours that could hurt others.
Consistent with their predictions, the team found that participants in the low self-control condition were more likely to ostracise Robin, which could partly be explained by the fact that they also perceived him as less prosocial and more likely to engage in selfish, potentially harmful behaviour. A final study found that participants with low self-control themselves reported experiencing greater experience of ostracism and more loneliness.
So, overall, the results suggest that low self-control can increase loneliness — and that this increase occurs partly via social ostracism due to selfish impulses or potentially harmful behaviour. This makes sense — you may be more likely to be faithful to a partner or co-operate at work or in a game if you have higher self-control, which could make you seem more desirable as a friend, partner, or social contact.
There are other explanations, however. Those with low self-control may be ostracising themselves — if you feel guilty or ashamed after a lapse in self-control, you might want to isolate yourself to deal with those feelings rather than being specifically excluded by others.
Future work could look at different kinds of self-control failure. If you fail to keep to a diet, for example, it only affects you — so would that lead to the same kind of ostracism that someone who can’t stop cheating on their partner might face? The team suggests that loneliness is more (or only) likely to occur when our actions have social repercussions; a closer look at this dynamic may shed more light on the relationship between ostracism, self-control and our social lives.