Imagine the teenager who eats a pint of ice cream when not invited to an important party or the student who can’t focus on school when rejected by a crush. These are stories to which we can all relate, and they are cases when social exclusion leads to self-regulatory problems. Though it may seem a little far-fetched that our social belongingness impacts our ability to accomplish tasks like flossing or saving for retirement, the evidence is widespread.
For example, in a set of studies exploring how exclusion impacts self-regulation, researchers made participants feel isolated in a variety of ways. In one study, participants were told their personality would lead to a lonely future; in another, they were told that no one in their group chose to work with them. After feeling excluded, participants were given a task to measure their self-regulation. Some of the tasks included drinking a healthy, but gross-tasting, beverage and working on a puzzle that could not be solved. Participants who got excluded displayed impaired self-regulation when compared to those who felt accepted: they drank less of the healthy, but bad-tasting, drink, and they gave up faster on the frustrating puzzle task.
Similar results have also been demonstrated with people who are lonely. For example, when asked to participate in a task which requires shifting the focus of one’s attention, lonely individuals performed worse than those who were socially connected. In addition, other work has shown that loneliness in childhood predicts less physical activity in young adulthood, and adults who are lonely are less likely to exercise than those who feel connected.
Some psychologists have argued that the need to belong with others is a fundamental human motive. When we feel we don’t belong, we suffer powerful consequences. The ability to self-regulate is an important skill and, some have argued, more important than intelligence when it comes to future success. Many of the challenges people in our society currently face are ones of self-regulation: fighting obesity, obtaining financial security, and balancing work and family, to name a few. Though you may not think of being nice to others as a way to solve these problems, this research suggests it may be a step in the right direction. To the extent that we can make others feel included and respected, perhaps we can prevent some of the harm and distress that poor self-regulation can bring.
Do you notice your social environment affecting your ability to control your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors? Have you tried to improve your social life as a way to get better at self-regulation? Let us know in the comments!
Baumeister RF, DeWall CN, Ciarocco NJ, & Twenge JM (2005). Social exclusion impairs self-regulation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88 (4), 589-604 PMID: 15796662
Cacioppo JT, Ernst JM, Burleson MH, McClintock MK, Malarkey WB, Hawkley LC, Kowalewski RB, Paulsen A, Hobson JA, Hugdahl K, Spiegel D, & Berntson GG (2000). Lonely traits and concomitant physiological processes: the MacArthur social neuroscience studies. International journal of psychophysiology : official journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 35 (2-3), 143-54 PMID: 10677643
Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, & Cacioppo JT (2009). Loneliness predicts reduced physical activity: cross-sectional & longitudinal analyses. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 28 (3), 354-63 PMID: 19450042