Brain & Health

Introversion - what is it really?

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Each of us has their own personality. Shy, exuberant, assertive and kind-hearted are some of the ways in which we usually describe others. Nonetheless, these adjectives do not indicate personality traits as described by behavioural psychologists. According to the classification of McCrae and Costa, there are five personality traits, called the Big Five, which they validated in 1987 (McCrae and Costa, 1987). These are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion (or extraversion), Agreeableness and Neuroticism (OCEAN).

Scientists gave a definition for each of these traits, but two traits in particular have been more extensively studied by behavioural psychologists and neurobiologists: extroversion and neuroticism. Just think about the importance of extroversion in our lives: how many times have you commented on someone’s extroversion/introversion? How often have you been asked the question that defines us in the eyes of others: “Are you an extrovert or an introvert?”.

One of the most common categorisations of people that we do in our minds is based on the trait of extroversion, typical of very sociable people who love to interact with other individuals and be in crowds. Introversion, the opposite of extroversion, doesn't have a definition per se, like all the opposite traits opposite of the Big Five. It is therefore defined as the lack of extroversion.
Can we, in spite of that, give a more precise description of introversion? Having asked around what introversion is, I got the following answers:

● “Not being comfortable with sharing feelings and thoughts”

● “When you are happy sharing 5% of what is in your head with others and keeping the remaining 95% for yourself”

Before you continue reading, think about it: what is introversion to you? That colleague who is pretty silent and doesn’t speak a lot? Your friend who doesn’t like to go to parties and always stays home with a book? Your very shy sibling? First of all, shyness is often mistaken for introversion. Shyness is actually linked to social anxiety and there are many extroverts who are tremendously shy, whereas many introverts aren’t shy at all. It is true that many introverts are withdrawn and prefer to stay alone, but that is not due to shyness only.

Extroversion and introversion are determined by how individuals direct their energy and how they recharge their inner batteries. Extroverts direct their energy outward and seek a lot of human interaction because that’s where they gain their own energy from.
Introverts direct their energy inward to recharge themselves, thereby needing to spend more time alone to do so. The truth is that there is a spectrum, an “energy continuum”, and we all fall somewhere along it. Only a minority of people fall at the extremes of the continuum, and there are even individuals who can effortlessly “switch” their energy uptake inward and outward without a clear preference: the ambiverts.

In light of this, how correct was your definition of introversion? Deeply rooted in society, we have the misconception that introverts are not outgoing and they don’t get involved in social activities. This  couldn’t be more wrong. To give you a practical example, I have been asking some of my friends and colleagues what they thought about me: am I an introvert or an extrovert? Here is what they said:

●“I thought you were an extrovert [because of all the social activities you involved yourself in, like NGC]. And to be honest, I still don‘t think you are an introvert. I think you are somewhere in between. I definitely know other introverts who are more extreme.”

● “You are introverted.  But you are socially very competent, which makes some people think that you are extroverted.”

I am an introvert, one of the many introverts who aren’t at the extreme end of the continuum; but I certainly am not an ambivert. Social interactions, even in small groups or when I thoroughly enjoy them, usually drain and exhaust me. I have also taken some personality tests and the result is always the same: very low extroversion (personality tests measure the level of the Big Five traits, in this case “extroversion”).

Extroversion and introversion are determined by how individuals direct their energy and how they recharge their inner batteries

This article will hopefully help you introverts out there to better understand what happens to you and why people react to you the way they do. And if you, dear reader, are an extrovert, then hopefully this shed new light on your experiences with the introverts you have met. You might not have understood what they need and what drives them. Introversion isn’t always pure misanthropy or shyness. Likewise, introverts might mistake extreme extroverts for very superficial people in their constant search for human interaction per se without delving deeper, and not realise that this is what actually keeps them up and running.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common characteristics of introverted people, like myself. An introvert might have all or only some of these.

Love to spend time alone
Looking at this point, nothing weird. We have determined that introverts turn inward to regain their energy, and they do so by spending a lot of time alone. Some might really like staying in with a good book and a cup of tea or binge-watching TV series, while others would rather spend time in nature doing activities like gardening or taking a walk. The important thing is being alone, with as few stimuli as possible.

Introverts are actually social, but they prefer spending time in small groups or alone because big gatherings can be quite exhausting for them. They especially enjoy one-on-one interactions instead of being in a crowd. The feeling of tiredness can also arise even after encounters with small groups, where you have to be more engaged and use more of your energy.

Quiet environments are the best
Yes, they do need their quiet to concentrate and think, and the best way to achieve this is to be alone or in silent environments.

Don't like group work
Some introverts can deal with team work perfectly well and even enjoy it. I personally love working in my team, as it makes the work environment more stimulating, creative and supportive. Nevertheless, for some introverts it may be more difficult to adapt to the speed of the thought of other team members and exhausting to work constantly in a group without a chance of thinking at your own pace. Indeed, I am also thankful that a lot of my work relies on me performing tasks on my own at the computer after discussions with the other team members.

Are very reflective and self-aware
Introverts spend a lot of time in their heads, which is what makes them functional! They actually love to daydream and think of the possible scenarios of life. They also spend a lot of time analysing what happens to them, elaborating facts, information and thoughts to a very deep level. This makes them really good at understanding complexity because they are great observers. Introverts are also very good at listening to others and empathising with them.

Decision-making takes time
Thinking is a strong facet of introverts. They take their time to ruminate and ponder. This means that they don’t make a decision unless they have thought it through thoroughly. Have you ever spent days on the internet looking for a new bathroom mat? And how do you choose your vacation destination: pointing a finger on the map, or after a thorough search of the possible locations?

Speaking isn’t as great as writing
Many introverts like to keep their thoughts to themselves, especially their deepest ones (which, to be honest, are the majority of their thoughts). This allows them to avoid interacting with others and explaining the workings of their minds. However, there might be other reasons why they don’t speak that much, like the fact that they take their time contemplating and understanding things. This is why, after attending a seminar they might come up with a question…even a couple of days after! On the other side, they can give very good talks, but only after countless rounds of rehearsal and thorough, painstaking preparation. As a personal example, my thoughts are usually very well formed and articulated in my head, achieving a level of depth, complexity and processing that is…incomprehensible to others, because in real-time conversations I mightn’t have the time to ruminate and compose a decent sentence. This happens to many of us and it seems to be in stark contrast with our ability to thoroughly elaborate complex concepts. Might this be why introverts prefer to write rather than to speak?

Are tendentially more anxious
All the thinking that introverts do might lead to ruminating about what has happened or will happen: that comment during the meeting at work, a mistake in the exam, or the fact that they are going to finish their studies soon and don’t have a job yet. Eventually, all of this overthinking leads to increased worrying about their lives and actions.

Friendships and relationships are deeper
Far too many times, I have heard people misunderstanding someone’s introversion for rudeness and misanthropy. Whether it is because they don’t greet their colleagues in the corridor when they are absorbed in their thoughts (again, they spend A LOT of time in their heads) or because they don’t participate too much in social activities, they are often mistaken for antisocial people who don’t like others. In fact, they actually  enjoy the company of others, but need to keep the interaction within a reasonable amount of time, with which they are comfortable. Thus, they prefer to have few, worthwhile interactions with people who actually can support their needs without draining too much of their energy. Eventually, thanks to their ability to listen to others and the preference for deeper thoughts, they establish fewer but more profound and meaningful relationships with their friends.

Do you think you now understand what introversion is better? I sincerely hope so! Maybe your perception of introverts and their quirks will also have changed. Soon I will tell you more about the biological basis of introversion and the bias against introverts that is ingrained in our society. Therefore, stay tuned for more on the topic of introversion.

Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Jie Shi. Featured Image: NGC/Design.



McCrae and Costa, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1987, Vol. 52, No. 1,81-90

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