Archive for February, 2012


February 12, 2012

The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)

I’m in the bathroom of the American embassy in Tokyo, and I can’t leave. Somewhere in the elegant rooms beyond, the ambassador is holding his annual holiday party. Diplomats from around the world, U.S. military personnel and reporters are mingling, sipping Champagne and picking at hors d’oeuvres. As TIME’s Tokyo bureau chief, I should be there, trolling for gossip or mining potential sources.

And for 20 minutes or so after arriving, despite the usual nerves, I did just that. But small talk with stiff-backed strangers at a swanky cocktail party is by far my least favorite part of my job. Send me to a famine or a flood and I’m comfortable. A few rounds of the room at a social event, however, leave me exhausted. So now and then I retreat into the solitude of the bathroom, watching the minutes tick by until I’ve recovered enough to go back out there.

My name is Bryan, and I’m an introvert. If this scene sounds familiar to you, then chances are that you’re one too.

We’re not alone, even if it sometimes feels that way. By some estimates, 30% of all people fall on the introvert end of the temperament spectrum–but it takes some explaining to understand just what that label means. For one thing, introverted does not have to mean shy, though there is overlap. Shyness is a form of anxiety characterized by inhibited behavior. It also implies a fear of social judgment that can be crippling. Shy people actively seek to avoid social situations, even ones they might want to take part in, because they may be inhibited by fear. Introverts shun social situations because, Greta Garbo–style, they simply want to be alone.

“Introverted people aren’t bothered by social situations,” says Louis Schmidt, director of the Child Emotion Laboratory at McMaster University in Ontario. “They just prefer not to engage.” While extroverts draw energy from mingling with large groups of people–picture former President and extrovert in chief Bill Clinton joyously working a rope line–introverts find such social interactions taxing.

Simply being an introvert can also feel taxing–especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative. From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice.

And as if the world weren’t slanted enough toward the extrovert, study after study has made sociability seem like a prerequisite for good health, right along with low cholesterol and frequent exercise. Very shy and introverted people have been shown to succumb more rapidly to diseases like HIV and to be at greater risk for depression than their extroverted counterparts. In schools, it’s the bolder kids who get attention from teachers, while quiet children can too easily languish in the back of the classroom. “Our culture expects people to be outgoing and sociable,” says Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. “It’s the unstated norm, and against that norm introverts stand out as seemingly problematic.”

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But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament–for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening–which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking–and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.

Introversion and extroversion aren’t fixed categories–there’s a personality spectrum, and many, known as ambiverts, fall in the gap between the two traits–but they are vital to our personality. “Our tendency to be extroverted or introverted is as profound a part of our identities as our gender,” says Susan Cain, author of the new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “But there’s a subtle bias against introverts, and it’s generating a waste of talent and energy and happiness.” It may be time for America to learn the forgotten rewards of sitting down and shutting up.

Born This Way

If you want to know how tough a society of extroverts can be for introverts and how quiet types can learn to adapt, you could do worse than talk to Cain. A graduate of Harvard Law School–not an institution known for churning out timid folks–she practiced corporate law for seven years before she began writing full time. During most of those years in the legal system, she hated what she did. Not every day–Cain loved research and writing–but it soon became clear that her soft-spoken, introspective temperament might not have been the best fit for a high-powered law firm. Eventually she left law and began working on her own, coaching clients in negotiating skills and working as a writer. “When I started practicing the law, I thought the ideal lawyer was bold and comfortable in the spotlight, but I was none of those things,” says Cain. “I could fake those things, but it wasn’t my natural self.”

Faking it is exactly what a lot of introverts learn to do from an early age. And that masquerade covers up something primal and deep. Scientists have begun to learn that the introverted or extroverted temperament seems strongly inborn and inherited, influencing our behavior from not long after we’re out of the womb.

That was the conclusion of a pioneering series of experiments by Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan. In a 1989 study, he and his colleagues gathered a sample group of 500 4-month-old infants and exposed them to new experiences in the lab, including popping balloons, colorful mobiles and the smell of alcohol on cotton swabs. About 20% of the infants reacted intensely to the stimuli, crying and pumping their arms. About 40% stayed relatively quiet, and the remaining 40% fell between the two extremes.

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Kagan predicted that the infants who had the most noticeable responses–the group he called high-reactive–would likely be introverted as adolescents, whereas low-reactives would likely be extroverted. When he brought his subjects back into the lab as they grew older, his hypothesis proved true: high-reactive infants matured into more inhibited, introverted teenagers. “There’s a strong footprint on temperament that you see early in life,” says Dr. Carl Schwartz, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a former student of Kagan’s. “It’s not deterministic, but if you’re a highly reactive baby, you’re less likely to become a bond trader or Bill Clinton.”

Psychologist Elaine Aron, author of the 1997 book The Highly Sensitive Person, explains what’s behind this. People who are introverts by nature, she says, may simply have a lower threshold for stimulation than others. It doesn’t take too many popped balloons and crowded rooms before they learn to compensate by keeping a low, quiet profile, conserving their limited energy. The definition of hell for an introvert isn’t other people–not exactly. But people are stimuli, and a cocktail party or brainstorming session full of them can blow their neural circuits. So they limit their exposure. Meanwhile, extroverts are a little bit like addicts who are always in search of a high, seeking out stimuli–in the healthier form of social situations–that would make an introvert’s head ring.

In studies conducted with functional magnetic resonance imagers, Schwartz found that the amygdalae in the brains of those original high-reactive subjects–now adults–tend to light up when they’re shown pictures of unfamiliar faces, while the amygdalae of low-reactive subjects show less activity. That makes sense: the amygdala processes fearful stimuli, among other functions, and the introvert’s first reaction to new people or experiences is usually guarded caution. “It’s not genes or the environment alone that drive this,” says Schwartz. “It’s the environment in dialogue with the genes.”

Quiet Babies, Fretful Parents

Caution, inhibition and even fearfulness may be healthy–and smart–adaptations for the overstimulated person, but they’re still not characteristics many parents would want in their children, especially in a society that lionizes the bold. So it’s common for moms and dads of introverted offspring to press their kids to be more outgoing, lest they end up overlooked in class and later in life. That, however, can be a mistake–and not just because our temperaments are difficult to change fundamentally.

The very fact that introverts are more sensitive to their environment often means they’re fully aware that they appear out of step with the expectations of others, and they can easily internalize that criticism. Just about every adult introvert can remember being scolded, even if gently, for being too quiet as a kid. Anytime a teacher grades on classroom participation, introverted kids will be at a disadvantage. There’s nothing wrong with parents’ nudging their shy children into the world, but there is something wrong if it’s more than a nudge. “You don’t want to break the kid by overwhelming their coping capacity,” says Jay Belsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. “The key is sensitive encouragement.”