Being socially withdrawn can hold surprising creative benefits.
When people choose to be alone, they most often do so for one of three reasons: they are shy, they dislike interacting with other people, or they enjoy spending time alone.
Traditionally, psychologists have named these three categories as shyness, avoidance, and unsociability. And new research aims to see whether all of these three categories are associated with negative psychological outcomes.
Many of us tend to think of solitude as something undesirable, and some studies confirm that too much loneliness is detrimental to your health. But the new research — led by Julie Bowker, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo’s Department of Psychology in New York — finds positive associations with one specific form of social withdrawal.
Not all loneliness is bad, ‘motivation matters’
Speaking about these negative associations with loneliness, Bowker says, “When people think about the costs associated with social withdrawal, oftentimes they adopt a developmental perspective.”
“During childhood and adolescence, the idea is that if you’re removing yourself too much from your peers, then you’re missing out on positive interactions like receiving social support, developing social skills, and other benefits of interacting with your peers.”
“This may be why there has been such an emphasis on the negative effects of avoiding and withdrawing from peers,” Bowker continues.
Referring to her study, Bowker says, “Motivation matters […] We have to understand why someone is withdrawing to understand the associated risks and benefits.”
To do so, the team asked 295 participants to fill in a series of questionnaires that asked about their motivation for wanting to be alone, and their creativity, sensitivity to anxiety, predisposition to depression, aggression, and social anhedonia — that is, lacking pleasure in social activities.
The participants were “emerging adults,” aged 19.31 years, on average. Bowker and colleagues also assessed these participants’ so-called behavioral activation systems (BAS) and behavioral inhibition systems (BIS).
BIS and BAS both help to regulate avoidant behaviors. A high score on the BAS scale, for instance, would mean that the participant rated as “very true” an item such as, “When I go after something I use a ‘no hold barred’ approach.”
A high score on the BIS scale would mean that the person considers statements such as, “I feel pretty worried or upset when I think or know somebody is angry at me” as “very true.” The team used the BIS/BAS scales to distinguish between different kinds of social withdrawal.
Unsociable individuals are more creative
The study found that unsociable individuals were more likely to be highly creative. To the authors’ knowledge, these results offer “the first evidence of a potential benefit” of unsociability.
By contrast, shyness and avoidance were shown to correlate negatively with creativity, meaning that the more shy or avoidant one is, the less likely they are to be creative.
While speculating about the reasons for this negative relation, Bowker says that “shy and avoidant individuals may be unable to use their solitude time happily and productively, maybe because they are distracted by their negative cognitions and fears.”
By contrast, “[U]nsociable youth[s] spend more time alone than with others, [but] we [also] know that they spend some time with peers. They are not antisocial. They don’t initiate interaction, but also don’t appear to turn down social invitations from peers.”
“Therefore,” Bowker continues, unsociable individuals “may get just enough peer interaction so that when they are alone, they are able to enjoy that solitude. They’re able to think creatively and develop new ideas — like an artist in a studio or the academic in his or her office.”
“Over the years, unsociability has been characterized as a relatively benign form of social withdrawal. But, with the new findings linking it to creativity, we think unsociability may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of social withdrawal.”
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