Today’s gregarious, outgoing world often views introverted tendencies as a flaw that needs fixing. Those seeking professional success are often told to network, which expands their name recognition and helps them stand out from the crowd. Similarly, reserved individuals who have trouble with personal relationships are advised to get out more and spend less time alone. However, new research suggests that individuals who have introverted characteristics aren’t actually broken after all. In fact, these qualities may be genetically defined and exist in babies who have had little environmental influence. These findings completely change how the world looks at introverted individuals and even how introverted individuals see themselves. It also emphasizes the many beneficial qualities that introverts possess and suggests that society is seriously under-utilizing them.
The Social Diagnosis
Introverts are assigned a variety of names including shy, reserved, and even anti-social. However, these are all misnomers. In fact, the term anti-social is not at all accurate, as it pertains to a complete disregard of other people’s rights and an overt tendency to intentionally violate those rights (Psych Central, 2014). Anti-social individuals not only don’t care about the feelings of others, they often get a sense of satisfaction from generating negative feelings. This is completely contrary to how introverts behave. They are often very disturbed by the fact that others can’t see their desire for friendship or deep personal connection.
These misapplied terms are rarely used by therapists or medical professionals. Instead, they are typically assigned by peers, family members, or others in an individual’s social circle. These inaccurate social diagnoses can be extremely harmful for introverted individuals. Over time, they begin to believe that there is something wrong with them as more and more individuals affirm this inaccurate social diagnosis. They begin to self-identify as shy or reserved, which can be detrimental to their self-esteem and ego. Other introverts take the opposite approach and pretend to be an extrovert by going to parties or joining speech clubs. However, they are rarely satisfied with these activities and often find that maintaining this false identity is a struggle.
True Characteristics of Introverts
In actuality, introverted individuals are not anti-social or shy at all. Instead, they simply react differently to social stimuli than extroverts. Rather than being excited and stimulated by social events, they simply find them exhausting. It isn’t that introverts don’t enjoy people. It is simply that they just don’t enjoy them all at once or for extended periods of time. Introverts are more energized and rejuvenated from spending time on their own or with smaller groups of people. In fact, they excel at one-on-one interactions far more than extroverts. Introverts are also far more likely to unwind at the end of the day by going home to read rather than to a local pub to socialize with coworkers. The biggest differentiator between introverts and those who are truly shy or socially impaired is that introverts don’t avoid interaction because they are scared, fearful or intimated. Rather, they avoid them simply because they prefer to spend time alone.
Introverts also show very different behavior patterns when it comes to making connections with others. If an introvert is asked to name five individuals in a recent class or conference, they will likely be unable to do so. However, they will be able to provide a number of identifying details about individuals. For example, instead of learning names, introverts may identify individuals by physical characteristics such as whether they have a mustache or always wear glasses (Thompson, 2015). They can often create accurate, detailed profiles of these individuals even though they never actually spoke to them.
It’s not only social situations that introverts react differently to, it’s also rewards. A study at the University of Toronto gave participants the option of receiving a small reward immediately or a larger reward two to four weeks later. Introverts overwhelmingly chose the larger, delayed reward, while extroverts overwhelmingly chose the immediate reward (Thompson, 2015).
Genetic Links to Introversion
New evidence may explain the frustration that introverts feel when people try to fix them. Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan conducted an 11-year study on infants and children and the results suggest that introverted tendencies may be present at birth (Thompson, 2015). Kagan evaluated the introverted tendencies of infants by exposing them to various stimuli, such as a popping balloon and a cotton swab soaked in alcohol. He recorded the initial reactions of the infants, such as whether they cried, drew back or exhibited a delayed response. Kagan evaluated these same infants when they reached the ages of two, four, seven, and 11 using age-appropriate stimuli at each evaluation. His research revealed that the infants who showed extreme reactions to stimuli had introverted characteristics at all of the other ages. Similarly, infants who had delayed or minimal responses to the stimuli had extroverted tendencies at the other ages. The study’s findings were validated in a later study that was performed once the children reached adulthood. Massachusetts General Hospital’s Carl Schwartz tested the same individuals in adulthood by performing MRI brain scans while showing the individuals images of unfamiliar faces (Thompson, 2015). The ones previously identified as introverts exhibited a stronger reaction and more brain activity to the photos than the extroverted individuals.
The Origins of An Extroverted Society
New research indicates that 1/3 to 1/2 of society may actually be introverts (Goudreau, 2012). If the numbers are truly that high, where did this belittling of introverts come from? Modern society has clearly developed a predisposition to rewarding those who are the most outgoing and attempting to change those who are not. A close examination of the U.S. work culture shows that this focus on rewarding extroverts is a fairly recent development. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain chronicles the shift of our society from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality” (Goudreax, 2012). Cain believes the transformation began in the early twentieth century as people migrated to cities to work at large companies. Prior to the industrial revolution, society exalted a culture of character, where qualities such as integrity, respect and honor were valued. However, once large numbers of employees were thrust together, individuals began looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. It was then that society shifted to a “Culture of Personality”, where visible characteristics such as charisma, beauty and a vivacious presence became more desirable (Goudreax, 2012). This new focus on outward traits created an environment where extroverts thrived.
Society’s Extroversion Bias
The emphasis on extroversion continues today, in both the workplace and in popular culture. For example, introverts almost always prefer to work alone. They find more satisfaction, creativity and success when they are at home reading, studying, inventing, meditating, designing or thinking (Cook, 2012). However, many educational systems and workplaces emphasize group cultures where teams work together (Cook, 2012). Elementary and middle school students are often grouped together on assignments to work as a team. In college and graduate-level educational institutions, active participation in discussion groups is often a significant part of an individual’s grade. Many businesses utilize group focused brainstorming sessions as a way to generate ideas and strategies, thinking that more brains working together must produce better results. Over 40 years of research has proven that brainstorming is actually not effective at all (Cook, 2012). These are not ideal learning and work environments for introverts. Not only are introverts not comfortable in these situations, but their skills, talents and mental acuity cannot thrive. Many of the world’s greatest philosophers, scientists and physicians did groundbreaking work only after many hours and years of solitary reflection and refinement.
Additionally, the business world tends not to value introverts for leadership roles. Instead, they favor gregarious individuals who can control staff to achieve desired outcomes. However multiple studies, including one from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, found that introverts are not only great leaders but their employees like them more than their extroverted counterparts (Cook, 2012). Introverts also deliver better business outcomes for the company because they allow staff to manage their own work instead of micromanaging or asking for constant status updates. In addition, introverted individuals in leadership positions are more focused on the company good rather than their own personal career goals.
While introverts don’t need to change to become successful, counseling can help overcome some of the negative stereotypes that these individuals internalize. Rather than focusing on becoming less introverted, therapists can be the guiding light needed to help individuals understand their inherent strengths and distinguish themselves in the most effective way.
Cook, G. (2012). The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-introverts/
Thompson, N. (2015). Introverts: You Were Born That Way. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 15, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/01/03/introverts-you-were-born-that-way/
Psych Central. (2014). Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 16, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/disorders/antisocial-personality-disorder-symptoms/
Goudreau, J. (2012). The Secret Power Of Introverts. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/01/26/the-secret-power-of-introverts/