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There's a Name for Why We Retreat and Withdraw From Others Even When We Desire Companionship

And it's called the porcupine problem.
(Photo: iStock/GlobalP)

(Photo: iStock/GlobalP)

We humans have mixed feelings about each other. We gravitate toward companionship, but we are also repelled—or repellent. The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was the first to introduce this concept, later dubbed “the porcupine problem.” Imagine a group of porcupines trying to survive a cold winter. They huddle together for warmth, only to then poke one another with their quills and withdraw. Schopenhauer wrote that human relationships are like this: Much as cold drives the animal porcupines together, “the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature.”

The porcupine problem is a truism in the can’t-live-with-’em-can’t-live-without-’em sense. But scientists have also examined it more rigorously. A study from 2007 suggested a wrinkle in Schopenhauer’s observation. It turns out that those of us most predisposed to fear rejection and perceive negativity being directed our way are also the most likely to retreat from others. In other words, the very fear of being poked (or of poking others) causes us to withdraw, even if no quills have crossed. So perhaps the porcupine problem need not be so severe. The less we fear anyone’s quills, including our own, the happier porcupines we’ll be. At least in theory. Then again, some people can be pretty irritating.


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