The quiet power of introverts

A life of the mind

Our personality greatly shapes who we are as individuals and influences nearly every aspect of our life. Our place on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, in particular, seems to have the most impact on the choices we make in life. Where we lie on this spectrum affects the friendships we make, the jobs we choose, the habits we form and the way we act in certain situations.

In 1921, the psychologist Carl Jung first introduced the terms introvert and extrovert in his book Psychological Types. Jung described introverts as individuals who are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling and who recharge their batteries by being alone; while extroverts are drawn to the external life of activities and people, and need to recharge when they don’t socialise enough. Researchers have since discovered new traits for both types of individuals, as well as a whole new category called the ambivert (which lies in the middle). For this reason, an all-purpose definition for each type does not exist but most psychologists agree that introversion and extroversion are preferences for certain levels of stimulation, with introverts requiring less stimulation and extroverts requiring more.

Modern society seems to value the extroverted individual more than the introverted individual. The archetypal extrovert demonstrates personality traits that are largely favoured by society. They are gregarious, confident and quick to action. Extroverts are generally more comfortable than introverts with socialising with others and working in teams and justifiably praised for “putting themself out there”. The archetypal extrovert is one who is comfortable in the spotlight while the archetypal introvert prefers the light from the lamp on their desk. While it may be that most people are not indeed pure extroverts or pure introverts and lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the fondness for people who exhibit extroverted traits has been demonstrated by studies which show that talkative people are judged as smarter, better-looking, and more interesting.

Introverts, on the other hand, are more likely to have poorer social and verbal skills, and in some cases, these skills are severely limited because of a social anxiety disorder. Because of the make-up of their personality, in situations such as socialising in large groups or public speaking, introverts are at a greater disadvantage. Public speaking is an introvert’s nightmare but according to the DSM-4 (the diagnostic manual for mental disorders), fear of public speaking is not just an annoyance, but a disease too. It is for these reasons that in a culture that merits verbal fluency and sociability, introversion has the potential to become a second-class personality type.

In some situations, however, extroverted traits aren’t always advantageous. While increased talking is generally associated with a greater level of insight, studies reveal that there is, in fact, no correlation between the two. In one study, a group of students were asked to solve math questions together and then asked to rate the intelligence and judgement of one another. The results showed that the students who spoke first and most often were consistently given higher ratings than those who were less talkative. When looking at their suggestions however, the talkative students were no better than the quiet students. In fact, in a separate exercise, the quiet students were rated as more creative and analytical. Other studies show that extroverts are more sensitive to rewards. Because of this, they are more likely than introverts to take part in risky behaviour to fulfil their ambitions, and therefore more inclined to make impulsive decisions.

These studies suggest that because introverted individuals are drawn to the internal world of thoughts – a life of the mind, they are more likely to reflect before they act. In certain situations, such as in conflict, this predisposition to contemplate the outcomes is favourable. Indeed, a balance between reflection and action should be ultimately desired. For this reason, when a culture values the action of the warrior extrovert, it should work to remember also the power of the worrying introvert.

“A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers.”

Charles Darwin

The nature of warriors and worriers

Where an individual lies on the introversion-extroversion spectrum is largely determined by their temperament. Temperament is inborn and biologically based and therefore whether you are an introvert, extrovert or ambivert is determined by nature. Personality emerges from temperament and is more complex, less stable, and alterable by cultural influences and life experiences. For this reason, while an individual may possess the biological and behavioural patterns of an introvert, they have free will, and therefore possess the ability to incorporate extroverted traits into their personality.

The psychologist Jerome Kagan hypothesised that an excitable amygdala causes an individual to have an introverted temperament. The amygdala is a structure located deep in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is also found in animals, and it underlies many of the basic instincts that we share with animals such as appetite and fear. The amygdala receives information from the senses and signals to the rest of the brain how to react. It is especially sensitive to threatening stimuli in the environment and triggers the flight-or-fight response. Kagan believed that individuals with a highly reactive amygdala would be more sensitive to stimuli and present physiological reactions like increased heart rate and temperature, dilated eyes and higher blood pressure.

In a study launched in 1989, Kagan and his team exposed four-month-old infants to a variety of stimuli such as bursting balloons and colourful dancing mobiles. They recorded their reactions and found that about 20% cried and pumped their arms and legs energetically. Kagan called these infants “high-reactive” and predicted that they would grow up to be introverts. Indeed, many of these infants grew up to develop quiet, shy, serious and cautious personalities. High reactivity and specifically excitability of the amygdala may be just one of many biological causes of temperament, but investigations into physiology suggest that introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli.

Some psychologists believe that sensitivity to stimuli arose as a by-product of our survival strategy. Evolutionary biologists have found that along with humans, other animals can be divided into two groups: those who more sensitive to stimuli and who prefer to watch their surroundings, and those who are less sensitive and prefer to act. In some species like fruit flies and house cats, 20% of its members are shy, slow to act and observant while the other 80% are bold and fast to act. “Shy” animals forage less, conserve more energy and are more likely to survive when predators come calling. “Bold” animals, though more likely to be eaten, take greater risks and are more likely to survive when food is scarce. For these reasons, both traits are advantageous for an animal’s survival.

An instinct for harmony

It is often the case that the bold members of our species are most valued, but the abilities of those who possess a shy predisposition should not be ignored. In Kagan’s studies, he found that when high-reactive infants grew up to be children, they tended to think and feel more deeply about their everyday experiences. These children were more likely to spend time in observation of other children and contemplate the actions of themselves and others. Studies show that when a high-reactive child accidentally breaks another child’s toy, they feel a more intense mix of guilt and sorrow than low-reactive children.

The connection between sensitivity and conscience has been further established by other studies. In one study, a woman gave children a toy that was rigged to break when played with. Some of the children showed more signs of guilt than others, displaying behaviour such as looking away, hiding their faces and hugging themselves. It is the children who we might call high-reactive and who are likely to be introverts that felt most guilty. This is not to say that those who are more extroverted don’t feel emotions and lack a conscience. Instead, these studies suggest that those who have a biological disposition to be more sensitive, and therefore more likely to be introverted, seem to feel things more.

Other studies suggest that your degree of extroversion determines how many friends you have but not how good of a friend you are. In one study of 132 students, the psychologists set out to understand the link between personality traits and relationships. They found that those who had an extroverted personality found it easier to form relationships but that this trait did not correlate with how harmonious the relationships were. Instead, those who had more of the trait known as agreeableness, found in both introverts and extroverts, had more harmonious relationships. In another study, pairs of introverts and extroverts talked to each other on the phone. While the extrovert pairs chose light-hearted topics, the introvert pairs discussed problems or conflicts in their lives. And when paired with the opposite type, both introverts and extroverts appreciated the difference in conversation topics. These studies suggest that introverts are as able, and in some cases more able, to form meaningful social connections as extroverts.

These studies suggest that the shy and quiet personalities that introverts have is not a weakness. They show that introverts are likely to have an intense conscience and a need to talk about meaningful topics, traits that help them to form valuable relationships. Introverts have an instinct for harmony. In many situations, it is introverted traits like contemplating the world around you and restraining yourself to talk only when needed that is preferable. It may be that we all lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and that we are more able to amass traits from each type than we think. If this is the case, it will be worthwhile to remember both the power of acting and the power of reflecting.

“I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”

Mahatma Gandhi

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