Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Unfortunate Dance of Loneliness and Hostility

Finding a way to trust the people around us.

Loneliness and hostility have a lot in common. Loneliness involves feeling emotionally or socially disconnected from the people around us and believing they don’t care about us as much as they actually do. This perceptual distortion makes us hesitant and likely to withdraw. Hostility involves a tendency to perceive others as being untrustworthy or harmful and can also lead to withdrawal from others.

But how do these constructs of hostility and loneliness interact?

A new study examined the question by looking at a large sample of older adults (although I believe the findings apply to people of all ages). The researchers found that loneliness was a significant predictor of hostility. Indeed, loneliness creates a mental state that elicits hypervigilance toward others as well as a tendency to distance from them. This happens because the emotional vulnerability we feel makes us so afraid of further rejection, we begin to see others as potentially harmful — they are expected to reject us — which places us squarely into a hostility mindset.

Further bolstering a hostility mindset is the secondary benefit we might gain from it. By perceiving others as being untrustworthy and harmful, we can justify our loneliness as being ‘their fault’ rather than a reflection of our own deficiencies or unworthiness.

Further complicating matters, loneliness carries a stigma that makes others hesitant to affiliate with people they perceive as being lonely. We're equally good at detecting people who come across as hostile and that also makes others hesitant to get closer. This combination of loneliness and hostility can elicit hesitant responses from others, reinforcing the lonely person’s perception that others don’t care about them and cannot be trusted.

In short, loneliness evokes emotional pain and vulnerability as well as a fundamental feeling of disappointment in the people around us that have ‘allowed’ us to become lonely. That can lead us to feeling more hostile toward others and make them hesitate to engage with us at the very time we’re desperate to deepen our emotional and social connections with them.

Therefore, we need to create a more favorable mindset before we reach out to others, to minimize the impact of loneliness and hostility and maximize our chances of connecting positively. Keep these guidelines in mind.

1. Monitor your mindset. If you want to reach out to a friend but also feel resentful that they haven’t reached out to you in a while, recall the last time you both had fun together or enjoyed a meaningful interaction. Use that memory of a good time to shift your frame of mind so you sound inviting rather than resentful in your communications with them.

2. Smiles and emojis go a long way. When interacting with people with whom you want to get closer, make sure to smile and not just with your mouth: making crow’s feet around your eyes is the sign of an authentic smile. Make sure to smile with your eyes. A smile emoji in an electronic communication is great too.

3. Account for your inaccurate perceptions. Remember, loneliness creates perceptual distortions that make us feel as if the people around us care less than they actually do; in fact, they care more than we realize. So, as hard as it is — and it is — give others the benefit of the doubt and try to make the time you spend with them genuine and satisfying.

Loneliness can lead to hostility and that, in turn, can increase our loneliness and make it harder to emerge from its grip. Breaking free of loneliness requires determination, bravery, and often, a leap of faith — one we have to take despite our fear of getting hurt because reaching out is the only way to establish richer and deeper connections and emerge from loneliness.

Copyright 2019 Guy Winch


Segel-Karpas, D., & Ayalon, L. (2019). Loneliness and hostility in older adults: A cross-lagged model. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication.

More from Guy Winch Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today