Brain & Health
The implicit bias against introverts - a guide on how it exists and where it originates
Written by Chiara
As a highly conscious introvert and as someone who usually voices her dissent, I've realised in the past years that there is an implicit bias against introverts.
In my youth, I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was a quiet remark on me being a good kid, diligent, and quiet, but yet not assertive enough. Then, if I would try to be more assertive I would be charged with being cheeky. Somehow, I was forcing myself into a behaviour that was unnatural to me. Growing up, the remarks became more of a critique on my personality. I have now realised that implicit bias against introverts is present in all areas of life: being extrovert is “good” and introvert is “bad”.
In school: “You are too quiet!”
School is the place where all kids should be treated equally, develop their individual potential to the fullest, and grow into functioning adults that will contribute to society. Unfortunately, teachers quite often don’t understand the basics of different personalities and neurotypes, and so they might mistake the behaviour of a child for something not conforming to how a child should behave.
“Play cool with the kids”: My kindergarten teacher thought there was something wrong with me because I wouldn’t play with other children. I indeed preferred to play on my own with cobblestones, leaves, sticks, and insects. My mother simply replied “let her be, she will play with the other kids when she wants to”. And so I did , when I had finally selected the kids that I wanted to play with.
“You need to contribute more to the discussion in class”: The most typical implicit bias of the education system against introverts is that we are too silent in class. Besides the shy kids, we are the ones usually pushed by the teachers to speak and contribute more in class. The lack of contribution to discussions in class can be seen so negatively as to lead to a lower grade; it “obviously” implies that you lack the interest and understanding in the subject. Teachers fail to take into account two things. Firstly, introverts spend more time reflecting very deeply about things in their heads, which means they need more time to get to an idea that is ready to be communicated. Secondly, the group setting of a classroom, where there are likely more extroverts than introverts, drains our energy and leaves us struggling to always adapt to the mental working speed of others. This happens at all educational stages, including university and graduate school.
At work: “You are not assertive enough!”
Since schools are valuing so much active participation in class discussions, likewise, things aren’t all that different once you move into the world of work.
“You need to speak up at work meetings”: Staying silent at meetings and in brainstorming sessions is often seen as a sign of a lack of ideas. However, expecting that we will throw ourselves in the brainstorming while our brain is slowly chewing over ideas and options, is like taking a cake out of the oven after five minutes and expecting it to be perfectly baked. Unfortunately, this leads people to assume that introverts aren't that smart after all. This can make us feel invisible or underappreciated in the workplace. If you are an introvert in academia, it gets even more brutal. I have personally never asked a question at any scientific talk I attended. Even at my lab meetings, I only started to speak up towards the end of my PhD, after several years spent specialising on a topic and thoroughly thinking about various aspects of it.
“You need to be more assertive to do a good job”: It is common thinking that if you are a quiet and reserved person you will not have enough resolve. In most jobs, especially male-dominated ones (namely most of them), this means that you won’t be seen as a good fit. Of course, a woman who is quiet rather than outgoing won’t be able to hold her ground (it could apply to a very quiet and introverted man too). The day I heard a manager say that he wasn’t sure that candidates who are too quiet would have been able to be assertive enough to deal with the projects’ stakeholders, I knew I had to educate myself on the topic of introversion to educate others about what it really means to be an introvert and how it is discriminating to judge us through the filter of the majority (in this case, extroversion).
We live in a society, the Western one, which most fervently promotes and rewards extroverted behaviours
In society: “You are antisocial!”
Society pressures everyone. However, as “the most” have it easier, introverts have it not so easy. We are normally seen as antisocial beings who don’t like people because we prefer to stay at home rather than going to a party. Except we aren’t antisocial. We need to spend time on our own rather than in a crowded and noisy place, because it’s through quiet and silence that we gather our energy. The extremely high pressure put on us to conform and “get out in the world” can make us feel extremely uncomfortable and eventually lead to some social accidents. It happened to me a few months into my current job, when I got overwhelmed by two extremely intense weeks of almost constant social interactions. Wrongly, I gave in to societal pressure and accepted some friends’ invitation to go to a local (extremely crowded) festival. I didn’t want them to consider me too antisocial. It was horrible: after an hour of stress and discomfort, I reached the point of actual physical pain. I left without saying anything, I had to leave or could have collapsed. I am not sure if they have ever really understood how distressing it all was for me. Now, I have learnt to be more assertive and decline when I feel that I need my own space. Don’t be afraid to do so, because nobody will take care of yourself better than you!
Can even science be biased against introverts?
While I was researching scientific articles to understand what is known about the neurological basis of introversion/extroversion, I stumbled upon a study (one of the many) in which the authors determined that happiness is associated mostly with extroversion (Cabello & Fernandez-Berrocal, PeerJ 2015; 3: e1300). And then it struck me: I am not happy the same way others are; each one of us experiences happiness in a different way and ascribes their own happiness to different situations. The authors of this paper used a questionnaire called Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS; Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999). In the first two questions participants indicate how much they consider themselves happy and compare their happiness level with their peers’. As we live in a society in which there are mostly extroverts and we are constantly told that extrovert people feel happy, it wouldn’t be surprising if introverts would indicate themselves as less happy than extroverts. Subconsciously, we tend to describe ourselves as less happy than others. The two other questions describe a very happy person and a very sad one, respectively as “They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything” and “Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be”. Again, these statements are very likely to make an introvert fall into the trap of homologation, especially considering that we tend to ruminate a lot. The questionnaire doesn’t try to understand what happiness is for each respondent and then assess how happy they feel according to their own personal set of values, but rather feeds respondents with questions biased by an extroverted dominance. After all, happiness means different things to different people: to some it’s being in good health and having a family, to others it’s having the career of your dreams, or having free time to enjoy nature. For Lucy van Pelt, it’s a warm puppy!
Can we overcome implicit bias against introversion?
Current estimates indicate that introverts could be between 30-50% of the US population (Susan Cain, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking”). This percentage may differ from country to country, since cultural backgrounds may be leaning toward more extroverted personalities (like in the USA) or more introverted ones (like in North Europe). The advances in behavioural research of the past years taught us that introversion isn’t a pathology or something to be “fixed”, like a neuropsychiatric disorder. It is just one of the possible ways of being at one side of a behavioural continuum that has extroversion on the opposite side. Yet, we live in a society, the Western one, which most fervently promotes and rewards extroverted behaviours: people who are generally outgoing, like to meet with a lot of other people, and engage in social activities are seen as “normal” and “happy”. The western world doesn’t like the quiet and reflective introvert and pushes us to modify our real self to get a space in this world: be more outgoing and assertive or you won’t be seen even in a professional environment, get out there into the social scene or you will be an outcast. How can our strengths and advantages be considered if the world around us measures what is to value according to a system that doesn’t apply to us? The pressure on us to conform to more extroverted behaviour is very detrimental: in the long run, all our energy will be drained by the constant trying to fit into the extroverted box as expected. It can also induce a strong sense of inadequacy, of not fitting in, which can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and in some cases even depression. It is important that we talk more about what introversion/extroversion actually are and teach people the main features of these personality traits, to debunk the myths of introverts being shy, antisocial and not assertive and to learn the strengths they bring to the table. Don’t be afraid of being who you are!
Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by John (Jia) Fung. Featured Image: NGC/Design.
Cabello & Fernandez-Berrocal, PeerJ 2015; 3: e1300