People are often unwilling to admit being lonely. They may be ashamed of feeling that way, and want to be seen positively by friends and family—better that they imagine you to be a sparkling social butterfly than a cocooned Netflix-watcher who just wishes they were out fluttering with friends. Even in scientific studies there’s something called the “social desirability bias,” where participants are more likely to give answers that they think people want to hear, so that others will like them.
The saddest part is, people who hide their loneliness may have good reason for doing so—one study shows that lonely people are seen more negatively by new acquaintances. But the loved ones of a lonely person could play a big role in helping them feel better, and ameliorating the serious health risks of social isolation.
The question is, can people even tell when others are feeling lonely? Research has shown that people can do a pretty good job identifying personality traits like extraversion and agreeableness in others, even others they don’t know that well, but loneliness is by nature more interior than personality. A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality investigates the loneliness question and comes away with the answer: Sort of. And it depends on your relationship to the person.