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New Research Finds Lonely People Have Superior Social Skills


There is a new way scientists are thinking about loneliness and how to overcome it. Many studies over the years have found loneliness can have grave consequences. It doesn't just feel bad. It's bad for our physical health, too. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us now. Hey there, Shankar.


CORNISH: So what's this new research into loneliness all about?

VEDANTAM: A number of experiments find, Audie, that when you bring people into a laboratory, people who are lonely are actually better at detecting social cues, reading expressions and being generally plugged into the social world than people who aren't lonely. I was speaking with Megan Knowles. She's a psychologist at Franklin & Marshall College. And she told me that she and her colleagues, Gale Lucas, Roy Baumeister and Wendi Gardner, were drawn to a paradox here.

MEGAN KNOWLES: Why are lonely individuals able to do this in a lab but unable to do it in a kind of real-world context - in an actual interaction? Why aren't they translating these skills into actual positive social interactions?

CORNISH: So, Shankar, what did they find out?

VEDANTAM: Well, Knowles gave me an analogy to help me think about the question, Audie. We often see the same thing happening in a different context in sports. Athletes, golfers - they can be excellent in practice, but they choke when it comes to performing what they know on a big stage. And from what we know about choking, we know that choking happens because you mister a skill, you know how to do something, but instead of just allowing yourself to perform, you start to over think what you already know how to do. Here's Knowles again.

KNOWLES: Thinking about what you're doing step-by-step-by-step actually ends up interfering and hindering their performance.

VEDANTAM: So Knowles asked is the same thing happening to lonely people in social interactions? They already have these skills. But instead of simply applying those skills, they over think what they know, and they end up not being able to perform what they know how to do.

She's just wrapped up a series of experiments to prove that this indeed is the case. When you tell lonely people you are testing their social skills, they choke. On the other hand, when you give them the very same test for social skills, but you say that you're measuring something else - you're measuring their mental ability - the lonely volunteers now do great. They actually outperform volunteers who are not lonely.

So Knowles concludes from this that many volunteers who describe themselves as lonely actually have the social skills inside them. It's just that when they're asked to perform these social skills, they behave like these athletes and golfers who are choking on the big stage.

CORNISH: And I understand that the researchers also attempted to help people overcome this. How did they go about doing that?

VEDANTAM: So Knowles knew that people choke because they're anxious. Lonely people are worried about failing, so they over think what they do. And that makes the problem worse. So Knowles decided to use a technique called psychological misattribution. She brought volunteers into a laboratory, and she gave them a drink. And she told them this drink was laced with very large amounts of caffeine. Now, in reality, the drink did not have any caffeine. But the volunteers believed that it did.

Now, the drink had no effect on volunteers who weren't lonely, but it made a big difference to the lonely volunteers. When they felt jittery, when they felt butterflies in their stomach about having their social skills put to the test, they now attributed their jittery feelings to the caffeine rather than their own anxiety. And now when they're given a test and told that it measures their social abilities, Knowles finds the lonely volunteers given the drink are less likely to choke. They actually end up performing better than the volunteers who aren't lonely.

CORNISH: So what about the real life application of this? How can someone who experiences social anxiety do this on their own?

VEDANTAM: Well, I suppose one thing you could do is if you know someone who's lonely - is you give them a drink laced with caffeine.

CORNISH: (Laughter) That's for a trick placebo, OK - other options?

VEDANTAM: You know, the truth is there are entire books on the subject of choking, Audie, but I think the value of the study is that it give us a starting point on how to diagnose a problem correctly. Lonely people might not need our advice on how to master social skills. They already have that knowledge.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly reports on social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter at @hiddenbrain. Shankar, thanks so much for talking with us.

VEDANTAM: Happy to be here, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.