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What the Heck Is an Introvert, Anyway?

What, exactly, is an introvert? The word has gained real popularity recently and people around the world seem to be coming out of the woodwork to declare, “That’s what I am! I’m an introvert!”

Google Trends for the Term "Introvert"

Here at Riskology, we consider ourselves introverts but, if we’re being totally honest, we don’t all agree on what that means and often struggle to explain it in elegant terms when someone asks us, “What do you mean, you’re an introvert?”

So, we set out to answer the question once and for all.

We dug into the history of personality science. We scoured the latest research and analyzed pop culture references. And we interviewed highly credentialed professionals in the field.

If we could break it down into three key findings, we’d say introverts:

  1. Have deep, rich inner-lives. It’s hard to overstate how “inside their own heads” introverts are.
  2. Prefer solitude to busy environments. Introverts are most at home… at home.
  3. Enjoy people, but prefer fewer, deep relationships. It’s all about quality over quantity.

But boiling down an entire personality type to just three bullet points can’t begin to explain the complex and fascinating traits of introverts.

What follows is a deep, multi-faceted look at what it means to be an introvert. Not just in the academic sense, but in the “How does this affect my daily life sense?”

So, where to start? How about at the beginning.

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A Brief History of Introversion

Perhaps the first task in answering “What is an introvert?” is to understand where the word and the concept came from in the first place, and how it became what it is today.

Considering the full history of science, the theory of introversion is a young one. It’s only been around about a century.

History of Introversion

It was introduced by a Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (pronounced like “Young” in case you were curious), who studied the characteristics of individuals and how they interact with the world. Jung believed personality was based on individual preferences in four categories:

  1. Favorite world (inner or outer)
  2. Information processing
  3. Decision-making
  4. Structure

Introversion is often thought of as a social preference, but Jung defined it as a natural tendency to focus one’s energy on their inner world. That means introverts are inclined to spend lots of time thinking and doing solitary activities because that’s what energizes them.

In 1921, Jung published his book, Psychological Types, which contains a detailed account of his personality theory. It’s the foundation for many personality tests you find online.

Nerd alert: In the 1960s, the psychologist Hans Eysenck created a similar theory of introversion/extroversion based on the belief that introverts are overstimulated by their environments and extroverts are understimulated. This theory explains why introverts tend to become overwhelmed in a busy environment more easily while extroverts become bored in a calm setting.

The Myers-Briggs Test Introduces Introversion to the Masses

After discovering Psychological Types, Isabel Myers was captivated by Jung’s theory of personality and committed to furthering his work. After years of study and observation, she developed the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) with her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs so that people could understand their personality characteristics, including introversion / extroversion—specifically for women entering the workforce for the first time during World War II.

In 1975 the Myers-Briggs test became more publicly available and, since then, millions have taken it to better understand their personalities.

A (Quiet) Revolution Brews

Despite the public availability of MBTI, introversion was a largely misunderstood and rarely talked about aspect of personality for decades afterwards. Misconceptions about introverts were common and exacerbated by America’s highly extroverted society.

In 2012, though, the perception of introverts started changing. Inspired by the struggle to understand her own introversion, Susan Cain published her book, Quiet, which sparked a revolution of acceptance and understanding of introversion.

Cain’s book and website, Quiet Revolution, are among several works on introversion in recent years that have helped society understand the highly misunderstood personality type.

Top Misconceptions About Introverts

Society is more knowledgeable about introversion today than ever before, but introverts continue to be misunderstood by persistent myths about them—that they’re shy or somehow antisocial.

Misconception #1: Introverts Are Shy / Socially Awkward

Often when people think of introverts, they picture painfully shy individuals terrified of meeting new people and struggling to carry out conversations.

This misconception is one the main reasons introversion is sometimes perceived as a character flaw rather than a normal personality type. After all, no one wants to be labeled as shy or socially awkward.

The myth is perpetuated because introverts are more likely to be shy than extroverts. However, they’re not linked, and shyness is considered a social phobia.

According Susan Cain, “shyness is the fear of negative judgement while introversion is simply the preference for less stimulation.” In other words, shyness, not introversion, is the negative trait that makes people afraid of interacting with others.

An Introvert's Reaction to Overstimulation

But what does a “preference for less stimulation” even mean?

Imagine you get to work early and you’re sitting alone in your office. It’s quiet and nothing demands your attention. This is a low-stimulation environment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, imagine you’ve just arrived at a multi-day conference with hundreds of people. You’re surrounded by dozens of conversations, a speaker is making announcements over the PA, someone is handing you information, and you’re urgently trying to find a colleague. This is a high-stimulation environment because so many different things demand your attention. You have to invest a lot of mental energy to focus.

When we say introverts “have a preference for less stimulation” it means they are more comfortable in a quiet office than a busy conference.

Important: This isn’t to say introverts inherently dislike busy environments like big events. Many do enjoy them, but they are tiring because they don’t match an introvert’s natural preference.

Misconception #2: Introverts Are Antisocial

Introverts also earn the unfortunate reputation for being antisocial. Sometimes the perception is even more negative. They can be seen as rude or arrogant for not wanting to participate in social activities.

This causes extroverts (and introverts, themselves) to think there’s something wrong with introverts for wanting to spend time alone.

Emma Watson provides a strong example of this myth. As an actress and UN spokesperson, she’s constantly invited to parties and social events. In a 2013 interview, she told Rookie Magazine that, before she understood what introversion was, she felt “there must be something wrong with me, because I don’t want to go out and do what all my friends want to do.”

If you’re an introvert, you’ve probably shared the same struggle with self-doubt when comparing yourself to extroverted friends and colleagues.

Here’s the truth: Introverts are not antisocial and a desire to be alone isn’t something to be ashamed of. The reason why introverts feel the need to be alone is not because they don’t like people but because they lose energy from social situations and need to recharge.

Introvert Energy vs Extrovert Energy

To better understand introverts’ capacity for social interaction, think of an introvert’s limited social energy like physical energy.

If you have a demanding job, you’re probably tired by the end of the day. Even more by the end of the week. As you lose energy, you lose motivation to exercise or tackle personal projects.

Introverts experience that same energy loss with social interaction. After spending all day surrounded by co-workers and seeing friends at social events throughout the week, the last thing they want to do is go out with a group of people. They need alone time to recharge the energy they exerted being around others.

The Science of Introversion: What It Really Is

Now we have an idea of what introversion isn’t. So, then, what is it?

Decades of research shows us introversion is more than just a social preference or personality trait. There are actually physical differences between the brains and nervous systems of introverts and extroverts that explain why, if you’re an introvert, you might want to curl up with book or watch a movie on a Friday night while your extroverted friends want to have a godawful dinner party.

Extroverts Explained: The Drive for Dopamine

We humans get pleasure from rewards. It could be food, social status, money, or a hotdog eating contest trophy. Just the anticipation of a reward gets us excited and those feelings arrive via a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine is that energetic friend from college who talks you into going clubbing on a Thursday night. When you listen, dopamine praises you with a flood of pleasurable feelings. Everyone has about the same amount of dopamine in them, but not everyone responds to it the same.

Introvert Dopamine Reaction

According to Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute, extroverts respond more strongly to dopamine than introverts. When an extrovert is faced with an external reward—going out with friends or hitting up a networking event, for example—the parts of their brain containing dopamine light up and their energy rises. They’re filled with excitement at the prospect of getting that reward.

On the other hand, introverts show a less positive response to dopamine. They’re more sensitive and can become overstimulated. This is one reason introverts feel anxious in the social situations extroverts find enjoyment in.

Nerd alert: In 2005, researchers conducted a study that showed the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens in the brains of extroverts becomes more active when they receive a positive response from a gambling activity. This finding has been used to suggest that extroverts are more likely to pursue risky challenges because their brains respond more positively when the outcome is successful than introverts in the same experiment.

Understanding Introverts: The Acetylcholine Addiction

We know that introvert + high stimulation = big dopamine release. And a big dopamine release is no bueno for introverts.

So, what works better for them? Acetylcholine. Wait, acetyl…what?

Unlike dopamine—which causes excitement from external rewards—acetylcholine gives you a pleasurable feeling when you turn inward, and it’s happy juice for introverts. This is why introverts enjoy daydreaming; the happiness they get from pondering ideas is similar to the happiness extroverts get from a crowded room of people.

Introverts Prefer to Turn Inward

These chemical responses explain a lot of why different personality types prefer different activities.

An extrovert’s brain becomes more active in response to dopamine, so they get a thrill out of highly stimulating social situations like networking events and parties. The reward that triggers dopamine is meeting new people. The more extroverts socialize, the greater the pleasurable response in their brains. It drives them to be more outgoing.

But an introvert’s pleasure response is triggered by acetylcholine when they focus their thoughts inward.

Pro tip: one way introverts can trigger the acetylcholine in their brains at social gatherings is by engaging in meaningful conversations with just one or two people. Deeper, intimate discussions prompt people to focus on their thoughts and come up with insightful responses.

Nerd alert: Acetylcholine is also responsible for activating the parasympathetic nervous system which triggers the body to stay calm and conserve energy in stressful situations. This may be why introverts prefer to handle conflicts more passively.

Introverts: The Differences Are Physical, Too

It’s not just neurotransmitters that explain the differences between introverts and extroverts. Scientists have discovered physical differences in the brain that may be responsible for some of the key characteristics of introverts.

In 2011, a group of researchers worked to discover why certain people are more socially oriented than others by measuring their brain response to pictures of human faces and common flowers.

They found extroverts showed much stronger responses to the face pictures than the flower pictures.

But introverts had a similar response to both the flowers and the human faces. No difference. It indicates that human faces aren’t especially interesting to introverts (at least not compared to extroverts). This could explain why introverts don’t get as excited by people as extroverts do. A sea of faces just doesn’t do it for them.

Faces Not Compelling to Introverts

Nerd Alert: Another physical difference researchers have found in introverts is that they have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for decision-making). That might explain why introverts think more when making decisions and enjoy contemplating ideas.

Surefire Ways to Spot an Introvert

Now that you know the science of introversion, here are some key characteristics to look for to determine if you, or someone you know, is an introvert.

Introverts Enjoy Working Alone

If introverts lose energy from being around people, it should come as no surprise they enjoy working alone. In fact, for introverts, working alone is not just a preference but a necessity to be productive.

We interviewed Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of three books about introverts and a PhD holder in counseling psychology about introverts in the workplace. She told us one the greatest strengths introverts have at work is their ability to take quiet time.

Introverts Prefer to Work Alone

When you consider how most schools and businesses emphasize brainstorming and collaboration, that might not seem like such a strength.

But the power of working alone should not be underestimated. Kahnweiler says the ability to create “takes place when you really give things careful thought and spend time in your head.”

Careful thought comes naturally for introverts because they spend lots of time thinking about ideas. Their preference for working alone allows them to conjure up creative solutions and produce their highest quality. This might explain why so many “creative types” are also introverts.

In his biography iWoz, co-founder of Apple and esteemed introvert, Steve Wozniak, wrote:

“Most inventors and engineers I have met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They work best when they are alone, and can control an invention’s design.”

Though not an expert on introversion like Kahnweiler, Wozniak understood that introverts are able to produce their best work when they are in quiet environments, free from the distracting stimulation and peer pressure of groups.

The need to work alone isn’t limited to inventors and engineers. Kahnweiler says if you think of people like batteries, introverts are charged up “by being alone and being in your head, and taking time to be quiet.” At work, introverts prefer to spend time alone because it energizes them.

Of course, a preference for working alone doesn’t mean introverts can’t thrive in group settings like meetings or social events. While extroverts tend to speak often and loudly, introverts think carefully about their ideas before sharing them and that can be their greatest strength.

Kahnweiler says “there is a lot more influence that can occur when you’re quiet, and calm, and you’re making your points in a different way.” She believes the key to speaking up effectively is preparation. If introverts prepare parts of what they have to say ahead of time, they’re more likely to feel ready when it’s time to speak and they’ll impress others with their insight.

Introverts Are Driven by Ideas

Ever wondered why introverts tend to struggle with small talk yet have no trouble with deep or controversial issues? Or why they’d rather engage in solo pursuits than social activities? It’s because introverts are most interested in ideas.

Introverts Prefer Deep Ideas

Remember: introverted brains respond the same to human faces as they do to flowers or other objects (like waffles, cats, or brick walls). People don’t hold extra significance in the mind of an introvert. So, introverts decide—on a case by case basis—what is an interesting topic of conversation or activity. For most, small talk doesn’t make the cut.

Before you call them cold-hearted, consider the benefit that brings to the tapestry of human connection.

They search for conversations and activities that focus on deeper topics like goals, ideas and complex feelings. The drive for these deeper topics, in turn, drive deeper connections and ideas, too.

Elon Musk is an example of introvert who relentlessly invests in deep ideas. A self-described “introverted engineer,” Musk steers the ship at both Tesla Motors and SpaceX—two revolutionary companies he started after co-founding PayPal, the world’s first successful peer-to-peer payment system.

Filling those roles takes incredible commitment and sacrifice in prioritizing his time. And both companies have taken a very long road to success—longer than most could commit to. He’s not driven by external rewards like fame or wealth. Instead his focus lies on his ideological dreams, a quality introverts have in spades.

On a more ordinary scale, you can see an introvert’s fascination with ideas in the quiet student who comes alive when a favorite subject like art or science comes up. Maybe you have a friend who, despite struggling with small talk, is a great conversationalist on deeper topics and is always working on personal projects.

Don’t take all this the wrong way. Introverts don’t shun connection just like extroverts are equally committed to their own ideological pursuits.

It’s all about preference. Tell an introvert and an extrovert they have to chat with people or think about ideas. You can guess who’ll volunteer for which.

Introverts Want Close Friends, Not More Friends

When was the last time you went to a party? Last week? Last month? Longer? Your answer probably depends on whether you’re introverted or not.

For introverts who naturally prefer solitude, managing the social calendar can be a difficult task. Often, they feel pushed to spend time in groups—that’s what society says is “right”—but their gut tells them to stay home.

Introverts tire from social interaction. They burn out if they make their lives revolve around people. But introverts still value relationships. They don’t want to be alone all the time.

So how do introverts manage their conflicting social preferences? Most invest their precious energy in close friends and family.

Introverts Prefer Quality Relatinships

Just like introverts value time spent daydreaming, they also enjoy connecting with people on a meaningful level. But what does meaningful even mean?

Introverts prefer investing their time building and strengthening close relationships to socialize in ways that play to their natural strengths of skilled listening and deep thought without the pressure of making small talk in a large group of people.

They still enjoy the occasional large social gathering. But, generally, introverts prefer coffee dates to cacophony.

Ambivert: A Name for Those “In the Middle”

So far, we’ve talked about introverts and extroverts as a dichotomy. If you’re not one, then you’re the other.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Hey, I don’t fit either of these categories!”

Even Carl Jung, creator of the introversion / extroversion theory believed “there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”

The Amibersion Spectrum

 

If you fall into that “don’t put me in a category” category, you might be what’s popularly known today as an ambivert. That’s someone who identifies with both ends of the spectrum. You feel one way one day, and another way the next.

For example, you may love parties and socializing on a regular basis (an extroverted quality) but you also prefer working alone in a quiet, controlled environment (an introverted quality).

Ambivert by Choice or by Nature?

Ah, you’ve finally answered the question, “What am I?” How satisfying, the feeling. But wait, we’re not out out the woods yet!

Liberating it may be to call yourself an ambivert, the creators of 16Personalities, a website dedicated to helping people understand themselves and others—argues ambiversion is an oversimplification.

They say it’s true that no one is 100% extroverted or 100% introverted, but most people lean one way or the other in most situations, and it’s important to recognize that.

Another confounding variable, of course, is that most people, particularly introverts, learn to act out of character to fulfill their goals.

Though they prefer solitude, introverts are passionate about their goals. And those goals just might, gulp, require other people. This drives them to adopt extroverted habits such as working in groups and going to events if it’s required to be successful.

Steven Spielberg, the famous director, once said “I work overtime to put up a facade to persuade people that I am not shy.” An introvert at heart, he learned to adopt extroverted qualities so he could pursue his cinematic dreams.

Acting like an extrovert at work doesn’t make Spielberg any less an introvert or change his core personality. The performance is simply worth the tradeoff.

Are You an Introvert? Not Sure? Try These Tests

Still curious exactly what to call yourself? There are dozens of personality tests clamoring to help you answer the question once and for all.

These three are the best we’ve found for answering the question, “Am I an introvert?”

  1. Want to quickly know if you’re an introvert or not? Quiet Revolution’s ten-question test will tell you.
  2. If you buy the spectrum theory, this quiz from LonerWolf will tell you where you fall on it.
  3. Interested in serious self-discovery? 16Personalities offers a comprehensive personality test that combines the personality types of the Myers-Briggs test with some more modern personality theories.

Get our cheat sheet.

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Wrapping It Up

By now, you probably know more about personality science and introversion than you ever wanted to when you started reading. The history, the misconceptions, the science, the tests and assessments.

And, hopefully, you have a better understanding of why you are the way you are.

No one could expect you to remember all of this, so we recommend bookmarking this page to come back to in the future when you have more questions or want to explore some of the links.

Here’s to you, fine introvert. May your natural strengths bring great things to the world.

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