Living like a solitary hermit can be unhealthy if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons —but newly-published research shows that not all forms of societal withdrawal are equal.

In fact, the findings published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences by a University of Buffalo psychologist suggest that one form of social withdrawal, referred to as unsociability, has some negative outcomes, but is also linked positively to creativity.

“Motivation matters,” says Julie Bowker, lead author of the study. “We have to understand why someone is withdrawing to understand the associated risks and benefits.”

Bowker’s study results are reminiscent of realities that surface in literature, from Thoreau’s retreat to Walden to Thomas Merton’s work as a cloistered monk, but for all the conversation and examples about the benefits of withdrawing into nature or reconnecting to the self, the pursuit has remained, until now, something that hasn’t been well investigated in the psychological literature, according to Bowker.

“When people think about the costs associated with social withdrawal, often times they adopt a developmental perspective,” she says. “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.”

But, in recent years, Bowker says there is growing recognition for the different reasons why youth withdraw from and avoid peers, and that the risk associated with withdrawal depends on the underlying reason or motivation. Her study in particular is the first study of social withdrawal to include a positive outcome

While there are some people who withdraw out of fear or anxiety, there are also some people who withdraw due to non-fearful preferences for solitude. These individuals enjoy spending time alone, reading or working on their computers. They are unsociable. Unlike shyness and avoidance, research consistently shows that unsociability is unrelated to negative outcomes. But, Bowker’s study is the first to link it to a positive outcome: creativity.

“Although unsociable youth spend more time alone than with others, we 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, they 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,” says Bowker.

In the study, shyness and avoidance were related negatively to creativity. Bowker thinks 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”.

For the study, 295 participants reported on their different motivations for social withdrawal. Other self-report measures assessed creativity, anxiety sensitivity, depressive symptoms, aggression, and the behavioral approach system (BAS), which regulates approach behaviors and desires, and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), which regulates avoidant behaviors and desires.

Bowker says there is some overlap in the types of social withdrawal. Someone might be high in shyness, but also have some tendency toward unsociability. But, the results from her study show that when the research controls for all the subtypes, the three types of social withdrawal are related differently to outcomes. Not only was unsociability related positively to creativity, but the study findings also showed other unique associations, such as a positive link between shyness and anxiety sensitivity.

“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.”

About The Author:

Bert Gambini covers the arts and humanities, social sciences and the School of Social Work. He joined University Communications in 2012 after more than two decades working in Buffalo radio, including eighteen years as a program host on NPR member station WBFO. Bert is a contributing writer and member of the Professional Football Researchers Association and serves as co-host of Nickel City Chef, Western New York’s local culinary competition.

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