Study: Sad, lonely people more likely to be ‘natural’ social psychologists

Who are the best amateur social psychologists? Introverts prone to melancholy, according to a new study by Yale researchers.
A melancholy woman standing at a window in her house.


Social psychology researchers use extensive training and complex empirical tools to explore the roots of human behavior. However, a new study by Yale psychologists found a surprising group of people are particularly good at accurately assessing truths about humans’ “social nature” without formal training or tools, they report March 15 in the journal Social Psychology.

So who are the best amateur social psychologists?  Introverts prone to melancholy seem to be more astute at understanding how we behave in groups than their gregarious peers, the researchers found.

It seems to be a case of sadder but wiser,” said Anton Gollwitzer, Yale psychologist and co-author of the study. “They don’t view the world through rose-colored glasses as jovial and extroverted people do.”

Gollwitzer and co-author John Bargh asked more than 1,000 subjects questions about how people on average feel, think, and feel in social contexts — phenomena that have been extensively studied by social psychologists. Some of the questions were: Do people work harder in groups or as individuals? Do people feel more responsible for their behavior in groups or as individuals? Does catharsis work: If I am angry, will taking out my hostilities on a stuffed doll make me feel better?

Research has shown that, on average, people work harder individually than in groups, a concept known as social loafing, studies; that people feel less responsible in groups than as an individual, a phenomenon that helps explain horrors like genocide; and that, no, knocking the stuffing out of a doll is actually not cathartic.

The psychologists then did a series of experiments to try to identify traits of those who accurately answered these questions. Not surprisingly, intelligence and wanting to engage with complex problems was a key predictor, the researchers said. But they also found that introverts tended to answer more accurately than extroverts, as did people with lower self-esteem and those who reported being more lonely.

It could be that the melancholic, introverted people are spending more time observing human nature than those who are busy interacting with others, or they are more accurate at introspection because they have fewer motivational biases,” Gollwitzer said. “Either way, though, this demonstrates an unappreciated strength of introverts.”

He stressed that individuals who scored high on tests about human nature do not possess the same knowledge and skills as trained social psychologists. However, he also noted that while “natural” social psychologists will not replace actual psychologists, they could be important players in the real world.

 “These ‘natural’ social psychologists, because they better understand social phenomena, may be able to interpret and even predict social changes in our society — maybe they are exactly what is missing from our current governance and positions of power,” he said.


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