Is there such a thing as introversion?

So, you’ve been called an introvert.  Is there a scientific basis for personality type?

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Image credit: Christofer Nicoletti

When did I first consider myself an introvert?  Probably about year ago when one perceptive online suitor forwarded me The Atlantic article “Caring for Your Introvert.”  Upon reading it, I remember experiencing what I imagine must be akin to love at first sight – a lightning bolt of clarity and validation for even my more unattractive qualities.  Yes, I nodded fervently as my eyes moved across the page, I’ll happily speak to a large crowd, but feel squeamish speaking up in small groupsYes, I like parties, yet feel drained afterwards and crave hours alone to recharge.  Once I had reached the final paragraph, I had an immense sense of gratitude for that online stranger who had passed it along, but the two of us would never end up meeting in real life – alas, blame it on our respective degrees of introversion.

In the wake of the article’s viral success, its author revealed it was largely written tongue-in-cheek, drawing from a mixture of personal observations and popular stereotypes.  He never anticipated it would hit a nerve with so many readers and to this day continue to be one of the most widely read – if not THE most widely read – article ever published in The Atlantic.  Still, however much the piece spoke to me and millions of others, I wonder how fruitful it is to categorize oneself as introverted or extroverted.  Is there any validity to these categorizations?

Hoping to answer these questions for myself and those of you who’ve somehow landed here, I began today’s blog as I do any other — that is, by seeking the opinion of experts.  But this post was nearly never written because for the first time ever since the blog’s inception, no one would agree to answer my questions.  In characteristic introverted style, three of the foremost experts on the subject declined my request for an interview politely, but out of hand – a spell only to be broken by a certain John Zelenski, Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario – not an introvert, I might add.

Prior to speaking with Zelenski, I found the Internet’s handling of introversion and extroversion to be frustratingly light and equally Manichean.  A person is either one or the other, and in this world of extremes, there is no middle road — a notion Zelenski dismisses from the start, explaining that if extroversion and introversion were on either end of a spectrum, he would be closer to the center.

“It is best to think of introversion-extroversion as a dimension of difference with many people nearer the middle than at the extremes,” Zelenksi reiterated.


Is there a biological basis for introversion? 

But what factors determine where one falls on the spectrum?  Are they strictly biological?  Or are cultural norms at work?

“It’s very clearly both,” says Zelenski.

When I pose this question to Avram Holmes of Yale University, he explains that roughly half of the population variance boils down to genetics.  And as for the other 50%?

“[T]he manner and extent that these traits are expressed is certainly also influenced by the wider society/culture,” says Holmes.  For instance, in western societies, extroversion is more broadly esteemed than it is in eastern cultures and therefore, more likely to be fostered in the individual.  In other words, certain genetic traits influence personality, but the traits that ultimately get expressed are in part contingent on one’s environment and the cultural values within it.

But how do our traits — be they more extroverted or introverted — translate into our thoughts and behavior?  Or structurally speaking, the neural connections that power them?

If everything on the Internet is to be believed, it would seem that with each passing day, scientists discover just how dissimilar the introverted and extroverted brain are from one another.  So different that they might as well belong to two different species.  One need only to conduct a simple Google search to find an infinite supply of articles intended to walk introvert-extrovert partnerships through the perils of work, love, and any other aspect of life where these yin and yang brains might be at odds.

When I e-mail Inna Fishman of San Diego State University, she confirms that there are indeed some neurobiological differences, referring me to a study she conducted in 2011.  Her findings indicate that extroverts when compared to their more introverted peers place greater importance on social information.  A human face, for example, “carries greater motivational value for extroverts and evokes stronger neural response,” says Fishman.  And this neural response happens fairly quickly.  Within just a few hundred milliseconds, to be precise.  In this minuscule window of time, explains Fishman, “the extrovert’s nervous system is already passing along a signal that is consistent with their behavioral preference,” which may allow them to devote greater attention to the social information at hand.  Introverts, however, do not appear to weigh these same stimuli as heavily.

Holmes, too, acknowledges there are some neurological differences between introverts and extroverts, specifically at the level of neurotransmitter functioning.  Extroverts, for instance, may be more sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in regulating rewards and pleasure.  Because of their heightened sensitivity, they might be more responsive to the rewards around them — that is, extroverts may feel more pleasure than introverts when confronted with the same stimuli.  But Holmes cautions that “there is significant population-level variability in both personality and neurotransmitter functioning.”  So quite simply, what has been observed in the lab does not necessarily apply to every individual outside of it.

When I ask Zelenski about our current understanding of these differences, he also has reservations.  While he admits physiological explanations can be “appealing,” he’s not sure the science is quite there yet, or if it ever will be.


Are introverts cut out for certain careers?

Zelenski’s research focuses on the behavioral level, so departing from neuroscience, I ask what he thinks about “typical” introverted behavior.  One commonly held idea, which I hope he’ll put to bed, is that introverts make for poor teammates.  Is there any basis for it?  Do all of us introverts become miserable and/or unbending when working with others?  Or take on the lion’s share of a given project if only to avoid mixing with the rest of the group?

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Photo by the author

“No, I do not know of much good evidence to suggest this,” says Zelenski.  “There may be some types of teamwork that do not fit introverts’ preferences well, but introverts’ social skills, on average, are generally just fine.”  Still, he adds, “[i]t is possible that the amount of teamwork for a job would exceed what an introvert would prefer.”  In other words, sometimes we might not like working with others, but we can be decent at faking it.

The importance of distinguishing between one’s preferences and actual ability reemerges when I pose the question to Mike Erwin, CEO of the Quiet Leadership Institute.  Through the Institute, he and his team educate organizations on how best to utilize more introverted employees, so between his master’s in Positive Psychology & Leadership, his extensive military resume, and work at the Institute, he is rather familiar with group dynamics.

“We know that introverts prefer to have more time to reflect upon what they want to say before speaking up.  So, if meetings and brainstorming sessions are led in a manner that requires individuals to speak up ‘on the spot,’ introverts are less likely to contribute their thoughts to that discussion.”

Holmes, too, emphasizes the importance of personal preference over ability.  Even though it’s not necessarily a question of capacity, he says, “the enjoyment of solitary or social activities can make a person more or less suited for a specific career.”  Even so, Holmes continues, “aspects of personality and temperament like introversion are not binary constructs,” and however tempting it is to see the population as either a 1 or 0, “these don’t exist in any real biological sense.”


Do introverts make for ineffective leaders?

But if certain group dynamics don’t align with an introvert’s natural preference, it begs the question: is he or she cut out to lead?  The idea of the meek personality disappearing into the shadow of others is a popular one, and it might not be too far off base.  In my discussion with Zelenski, he confirms that “[e]xtroverts are more prone to seizing leadership.”  Still, he says, introverted leaders can be successful, assuming that they manage to wrangle the role from somebody else.


Photo by the author

However, for those made uncomfortable by the mere thought of confrontation, hanging back might actually serve as an asset — or at least that’s the case being made by the 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  In it, author Susan Cain describes a study conducted by Wharton Professor Adam Grant, which found that introverts are generally better at leading initiative-seekers.  More than a hundred college students were divided into competing groups, and within each one, there were two actors assigned to play along unbeknownst to the other participants.  What Grant found was that when the actors spoke up with ideas on how to improve the team’s strategy, introverted leaders were far more responsive and the team, ultimately more successful.  Still, while introverts prove better at directing self-starters, writes Cain, when it comes down to leading more passive types, extroverts have greater success in inspiring and producing results.

The findings from Grant’s study are certainly intriguing, but what about the real-world experiences of people like Erwin, a former West Point cadet and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan?  Who were the men and women leading him?

“I have had a mixture of introverted and extroverted leaders—in the military, business and non-profit worlds,” says Erwin.  Consistently, he tells me, they were resolutely self-aware and understood the personalities of their teams.  “I believe that a key to a leaders’ success is how well he/she knows themselves — and also others, and how to maximize the strengths of others as often as possible.”

So, the good news is that all preferences aside, this kind of introspection and observation seems within the reach of most of us.  Unlike inborn talents one either has or doesn’t, these skills can be learned and honed.  But for those of us self-proclaimed introverts, should we learn to behave in more extroverted ways?


Are extroverts happier?

The self-awareness required to be a good leader may also allow more introverted types to tap into the benefits of extroversion.  Because extroverts are reportedly happier, Zelenski suggests that introverts periodically use more extroverted behavior as a “tool” to improve their mood and to pursue their goals.  After all, he says, when introverts intentionally act more extroverted, they report more positive emotions.  In other words, fighting one’s natural instincts every now and then could have its rewards.

In any case, perhaps at the end of the day, readers of this article and the many others saturating the Web should avoid taking these categories too seriously, as we humans are a complex lot.  Still, I find some comfort in better understanding my preferences in a variety of social contexts — and certainly validation in knowing there is a biological basis for possessing them.  Maybe most importantly, it’s knowing one’s likes and trying to perceive those of others that we can be our best selves — our best partners, teammates, employees, and as the case may be, leaders.


Click here to find out if you’re an introvert.