Who likes to be alone? Not introverts, according to a new paper on personality and the experience of solitude

By Christian Jarrett

Why do some people go to great lengths to have the chance to spend time by themselves, while others find solitude painful and forever crave company? The most obvious answer would seem to be that it relates to differences in social aspects of personality, and specifically that extraverts will find solitude painful while introverts will enjoy their own company more than anyone else’s. However, a new paper, published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv (not yet peer-reviewed), and involving three diary studies with hundreds of undergrad volunteers, suggests the truth is more complicated.

In fact, there was no evidence that introverts enjoyed solitude more than extraverts. Rather, the most important trait related to liking one’s own company was having strong “dispositional autonomy”. This is a concept from self-determination theory and the researchers, led by Thuy-vy T. Nguyen at the University of Rochester, said that people strong in this trait have alignment between their behaviour, values and interests, are “resistant to pressure from others”, and “are interested in learning more about their personal experiences and emotions”. High scorers in autonomy enjoyed solitude more than others and sought it out for its own sake.

One of the studies involved asking the participants to spend 15 minutes a day in solitude (on seven different days) and then to complete detailed questionnaires afterwards about how they’d found the experience. Introverts enjoyed solitude no more than extraverts (although there was a slight tendency for them to experience fewer negative thoughts), and it didn’t satisfy their basic psychological needs either, such as their feelings of autonomy and competence. In contrast, higher scorers in dispositional autonomy (as measured by agreement with statements like “My decisions represent my most important values and feelings” and “I am deeply curious when I react with fear and anxiety”) enjoyed solitude more than others, experienced fewer negative thoughts and it fulfilled more of their basic psychological needs.

The findings for enjoyment of solitude chime with two of the other diary studies that looked into people’s motivations for finding time alone. This showed mixed findings for introverts: one study, but not the other, found that introverts were more likely to engage in “reactive solitude” (that is, being by themselves as a way of escaping being with others). Meanwhile, higher dispositional autonomy was correlated with more “constructive solitude”, which is seeking out solitude for its own sake. Introversion was not correlated with seeking constructive solitude in either study.

While taking caution, given that this research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and remembering that further investigations could offer a different perspective, the current results suggest we need to rethink our assumptions about introverts and extraverts and how they experience being alone. If an introverted person doesn’t feel they have chosen to be alone, and they have sought out solitude for relatively negative reasons (as a form of escape), then it would be wrong to assume that just because they are introverted that they will enjoy their situation. Savouring solitude seems to be more associated with being the kind of person who feels free and in control of their life and who finds pleasure in reflecting on their inner experiences – and among both introverts and extraverts there will be those who do and do not fit this description.

The researchers also looked at the relevance of their participants’ “attachment styles” –  ways of relating to others that are thought to be shaped by the treatment received from caregivers early in life. Among the findings here was that people with an avoidant attachment style (who tend to see others as untrustworthy) sought out more constructive solitude – that is, they wanted to be alone and valued that time more than with others  – but when they actually experienced solitude, they didn’t necessarily enjoy it and had more negative thoughts.

Overall, Thuy-vy Nguyen and her colleagues said they had shed new light on how people experience solitude, and especially that how it feels to be alone “might be a function of how individuals self-regulate experiences and behaviours, more generally, rather than merely based on introversion or avoidance of others.”

Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre (“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company“), the researchers added that “… to the extent that individuals are compelled by guilt, anxiety, or avoidance rather than approaching experiences with self-reflection and interest, they will find solitude an unpleasant experience, and derive little enjoyment from time spent alone.”

Identifying Personality Characteristics associated with the Capacity to be Alone using Big-Five Theory, Attachment Theory, and Self-Determination Theory [This paper is a pre-print and the final peer-reviewed version may differ from the version that this report was based on]

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

29 thoughts on “Who likes to be alone? Not introverts, according to a new paper on personality and the experience of solitude”

  1. I’ve looked at the study and it uses the “Big-Five Personality Inventory” to define Introvert which seems to be more of a definition of ‘shy’ as it notes timidity.

    But clearly introversion and shyness are different.

    I offer to you that:

    • Introversion is an ABSENCE OF DESIRE to socialize. Introversion is grounded in managing (external) stimulation.
    • Shyness is a DESIRE TO BE ABSENT from socializing. Shyness is grounded in (internal) fears.

    And anecdotally I can tell you that my close friends are all introverts – not at all timid, some in very demanding and responsible positions, one even a little famous, and each and every one of us is severely grateful when we get home and no one is there.

    The power to be alone is paramount to our mental health.

    1. Your assuming that introversion and shyness are choices. Shyness can occur for no reason at all and in fact be hereditary. We should recall the Virginia Tech massacre and the acute shyness suffered by the perpetrator, so acute that it was a major contributor to the madness of his behaviour. His father was also acutely shy.

      Congenital shyness is not grounded in fears. I myself had shyness issues in my youth and had no identifiable associated fears and to this day many years later I can look back with clarity and see that there were no fears whatsoever. The shyness was a visceral response just as withdrawing one’s hand away from a hot stove is not because of some intellectually grounded fear of burning.

    2. As a self-employed artist, poet and general creative, I CRAVE alone time. In fact socializing with too many people and too often effectively shuts down my creative process. (Loud music and high drama do the same.) For instance I hear snippets of conversation which drift in and out of my thoughts for days after socializing. These snippets are neutral, neither good or bad and I allow them to drift freely through my consciousness, but they do shut down my inherent muse. I am NEVER lonely, except when with people and especially if I feel misunderstood or muzzled. I do not seek solitude for escape, but seek it for what it brings me and gives me: myself.

      1. These days I prefer solitude though I am comfortable with online conversations. I find that online company does not interfere with one’s creative flow as one can choose the moment for interaction and is not completely distracted by the company of another and the inevitable pointless chatter that keeps the moment alive and avoids awkward silences. Pauses are natural during online conversations.

        I spent a couple of years in a tin shed on an island, best couple of years of my life, well, there were plenty of positive experiences in that. No electricity or phone, mobile phones of any kind were not available, the silence was wonderful.

    3. Shyness is the highest expression of introversion. They are not different things but in different levels of the same general feature. Introverted people is as ambi-introverted. All introverts have more shy features than extroverts, but it’s also dependent of environment they has been raised. I believe introversion is also a hig expression of environmental sensibility. Because introvert people think more, internalize more environmental informations, they are more prone to be over-sensible to the [social] environment they are. Most introverts are innerly extroverts, my opinion. It’s also can be described as cautiousness personality traits. While extroverts explore social environments easily, specially when these environments are densely populated by extroverts, introverts tend to be less socially risk-taking and when they perceive these environments are not friendly adopt oyster strategy.

      Take a agreeable person and force it to live among disagreeable people.. It’s happen with introverts too, specially those who are internally extroverted [imaginative, positive feelers, etc], but at macro-occurence.

      1. You are making the indefensible assumption that shyness is somehow voluntary. Of course people can ‘shy away’ from social contact by choice, but shyness is typically a visceral response. It would be truer to say that in most cases introversion is a result of shyness. I do not socialise and I am not shy.

        The same erroneous assumption used to be made with regard to blood phobias, that an individual was actually afraid of the appearance of blood due to some earlier experience, which is the case for some individuals. But many more have a visceral subconsciously motivated response entirely out of their own control and not the result of past experiences.

        Shyness is, for the majority of those who have it, an illogical response which hijacks their ability to socialise. Alcohol relieves the symptoms for many of these and with alcohol they will socialise frequently thus exposing the erroneous view that their shyness is by choice.

        Introversion can be a choice, it can be the result of past experiences evoking an introverted response or it can be an unwelcome visceral imposition that the individual would be very glad to be rid of.

        As for exploring environments, many past explorers were introverts. It is only the environment populated by people that they will be compelled by their shyness to avoid, for those who the visceral (uninvited ) shy response.

        I would also cite micheleharvey in the above comment as person who seeks their own company and so is probably considered behaviourally introvert and yet not shy at all…

  2. I love being alone since I was 5 years old. I love being alone because there are lots of people out there whose IQ level doesn’t match with me . i have dated guys who later proofed to be useless.

    1. I’m almost the same. Never liked being around people because A: they are stupid, and B: I am extremely empathic , and thus always see the falseness in people. Having an emotional IQ somewhere in the WTF range doesn’t help, neither does being a double Pisces.

  3. I appreciate the angle of this study and the writer of this post too.

    Enjoying solitude is not totally tied to personality (introversion/extroversion) traits rather to dispositional autonomy (which is I believe is linked to locus of control and self-awareness).

    In a nutshell, the key to happiness is loving yourself.

    I would like to read more study along this line.

  4. IMO, there’s a big problem here. When asked to be alone, were people just supposed to sit there doing nothing? I am an introvert and I spend my time alone doing things that I enjoy, e.g., reading. Just sitting in solitude with no occupation is an entirely different thing.

    What happened to the classic definition of introversion/extraversion? That is, does being with other people drain or charge your batteries?

    That said, there are interesting things here … the connection to autonomy in particular.

    1. Margaret again. I’ve had some more thoughts on this topic.

      More missing factors:

      What do you like to do? Is it a group activity or a solo activity?
      What particular people are available to you at a particular time?

      I am more of a solo person myself, but a large part of this might be attributed to the fact that I grew up in a rural area, before TV, where most of the activities were solo by necessity. I learned to amuse myself, and those interests have stayed with me. Also, sometimes I’d like some company but can’t think of anyone to call.

      The point of solitude as a choice vs. an escape is valid. But the converse must also be true: being with people to avoid being alone. Seems like this study might be assuming that being with people is preferable to not.

      Overall, you have to balance:

      Doing what you want
      Being with people you enjoy
      Managing your own energy
      Avoiding people or activities you don’t enjoy
      Doing things you need to do

      This is a complex calculation and the outcomes vary over time and situation.

      1. I’m not sure the classic definition of introversion is anything about energy. That’s more millennial idea (in the sense of recent times). Being introvert was, as a classic definition, “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life” (Merriam-Webster).

        What is true is that it was always seeing as a mildly bad thing. The definitions related to drain or recharge energy, I think, is more of a justification of it, as to counterbalance the “bad press”. Maybe I’m wrong, but I heard the first time about this energy drain definition on Tumblr, years ago.

    2. I have always seen myself as extremely extravert. That does not mean that people don’t drain me. It does not mean I don’t enjoy my own company. I would never sit still even if I was told to. So solitude to me simply means that I can’t share my thoughts when I need to. Sharing is essential to me. Therefore I call my self an extravert. I spend lots of time in other people’s company. Some people make me feel exhausted, others are just a part of my extended body. To me, it really makes sense to look into the classic definition.

  5. It is a rubbish dichotomy which does not exist. Anybody can shoehorn themselves into categories / dichotomies and any such dichotomies can be factor analysed. Such dichotomies / categories all originally grew out of folk wisdom eg the reserved / quiet versus the loud / confident. Labelling yourself / psychologising your modus operandi is nonsense – and won’t help one iota with daily living. Just live!

  6. ‘Introversion’ is not necessarily a choice. In fact for most introverts it is an imposition they strongly dislike. Finding freedom though alcohol can quickly turn to alcohol problems in such people. If it were a choice then they would not need alcohol to free themselves from it.

    Introversion *by choice* may well correlate with solitude. Extroverts can also experience a reflexive nature to their flamboyance and openness and wish to be free of it which solitude will provide whilst others will find such behaviour stimulating and pleasurable and pursue it.

    So why the assumption that introverts like solitude?

  7. I do think it is worth studying people who are simply less interested in socializing. The notion that everyone who is alone is really stressed, unhappy and bound for medical problems may be true in some cases, but some people have active, constructive inner lives and don’t feel any visceral need for “social stroking,” nor does it affect their health. I can imagine where this tendency might occur independently of the introvert/extrovert pole. My mother is an introvert, but she also seems very lonely and frequently seeks out the company of “safe” people (her family). I’m an introvert, but have not sought out friends (very much) and don’t understand why you need other people in order to have fun.

  8. I took a look at the study as well. It strikes me that the introverts were reporting that they had a preference for solitude over interaction with others, but that they did not necessarily “value” it more. This suggests that solitude is a form of escape for over-stimulation rather than a goal in itself. This seems aligned with the idea that introverts need down time after social interaction to recharge their batteries. Not that they choose to be alone because it serves some higher purpose within themselves (though this might be true for some).

  9. Every person needs sometimes a time to take a deep breath, stay alone and look deep inside itself. Obviously, introverts need more time for this and they enjoy this time which gives them not only relax but also stimulate there brain activity and creativity. I was enjoying reading this post. Thanks for sharing
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  10. It is highly unlikely, in my opinion, that solo behaviour in adolescence and young adulthood is consistent with solo behaviour in later adulthood.

    The intense social environment of school and college is for most people never repeated once they leave and find the subsequent social environment populated by people of all ages and not just their own age range as during education.

    It takes some time to adjust to the less frequent interaction with age peers after college and the step to solitude is far smaller after that adjustment.

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