Lonely People Have Social Skills, They're Just Too Anxious to Use Them

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Lonely people may just be terrible under pressure. A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin finds that lonely people aren’t lacking in social skills. Rather, they may be able to decode social cues just as well as a non-lonely person, but choke under the pressure of performing in social situations, researchers led by Megan Knowles at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College found. 

As it turns out, “choking” is a scientifically validated concept. When people pay too much attention to what should be automated processes, like in professional sports, it can interfere with what should be a subconscious performance. Freaking out over a task, like a math test, can also overload working memory, causing people to flub.  

In four different tests, participants who described themselves as lonely performed as well or better than non-lonely participants, as long as the tasks weren’t couched in terms of social suavity. In one, for instance, some participants were told that a particular lab task would measure their performance in social situations, while another group was told that it was merely a measure of problem-solving. Lonely people in the former condition tended to perform worse than non-lonely people, while in the second condition, there was no difference. In other words, when they felt their social skills were being put to the test, lonelier people choked. However, in a subsequent study when participants were primed to attribute their feelings of anxiety to a caffeine buzz (from a fake energy drink that in reality contained no sugar or caffeine), lonely individuals performed better.

“Apparently, allowing the lonely to dismiss their anxieties as stemming from another task or being side effects of caffeine enabled them to avoid choking under pressure,” the researchers write. “Altogether, these findings suggest that the pressure of social challenges causes anxiety that impairs the performance of lonely people.”  

This is in line with previous research suggesting that reframing the way people think about anxiety can help with all kinds of performance anxiety. Leaning into those butterfly feelings—by concentrating on feeling excitement before a big speech for example—can improve performance more than trying to fight the anxiety and calm down. Now, just figure out a way to self-administer placebo shots of caffeine, and you’ll be the life of the party. 

[h/t: The Science of Us]