15 April 2010

Introversion - What You Need To Know

According to personality tests, I am an introvert. Individuals who do not understand this trait and have a popular conception of what introversion is will infer that I am therefore 'shy', 'antisocial' or 'quiet'.

Belle prefers her books over the company of obnoxious Gaston

The Introversion Myths

On the surface that is perhaps true, introverts may appear shy and antisocial. But if you dig deeper, more complex mechanisms are at play and these may not even relate to shyness or anti-social behaviour. For example, introverts do not always spend time alone. Some introverts enjoy company and are the life of the party when they do go out and such introverts will fool you into believing that they are extroverts. Again, another misconception with extroversion is that it makes one louder, more sociable and more likely to be on the social stage. That is not always the case.

Then again there are people who are introverted and who like to boast that they can pretend to be 'extroverted'. Again this personal belief that they can somehow 'pretend to be' another personality type is rooted in the popular misconception of what introversion is.
According to the Arousal theory of introversion (which I will describe shortly), the ability to 'become' either an introvert or an extrovert is doubtful. According to this theory, individuals are either one of the other, or perhaps under forces outside their control, they somehow sway between the two but their ability to directly control this trait is not possible.

So what is introversion?

Let's debunk the myths with some psychological theory.

The psychologist Eysenck once proposed that whether we are introverts or extroverts depends on our innate cortical arousal, that is, the degree of brain stimulus that is present in our brain. Eysenck hypothesised that introverts are characterised by higher levels of activity than extroverts and so are chronically more cortically aroused than extroverts. This is called the "stimulation" hypothesis.

To put forward an analogy, introverts have, if you like, a loud party already going on inside. They are already on a high. What this means is that since their internal world is already buzzing, they are going to want to limit the amount of extra stimulus that the outside world brings to them. And yes, that often means spending time alone, limiting their involvement in parties and seeming a little aloof and antisocial.

Redefining Introversion in terms of Human Physiology

As you can imagine, the primary factor that has led to the misconceptions about the nature of introversion is that so often we describe (and test for) introversion in terms of its resulting social behaviour.
But the underlying mechanism for introversion, at least according to Eysenck's theory, is actually physiological, not social. It is this physiological phenomenon which, in turn, results in behaviour that allows the individual to balance their arousal level.

So for an introvert, there will be a desire to reduce/restrict any additional external arousal. On the other hand, for an extrovert, the move will be to increase the total arousal to an ideal level. Whether the individual increases or reduces this arousal via their social behaviour, sporting activities or their lifestyle is entirely up to them.
But their innate physiological state (high arousal for introverts / lower arousal for extroverts) is one thing that individuals can not control. So for those individuals who believe they can 'pretend' to be an extrovert, sorry, you are fooling yourself. Because according to Eysenck's theory, your cortical arousal is something you are stuck with.

The Psychophysiology of Introversion - What is the Proof?

Is Eysenck crapping on?
Apparently not. Granted, his model of personality (consisting of extroversion, neuroticism, psychoticism) is open to controversy and competes with other personality models, but his hypothesised physiological nature of extroversion has so far yielded strong experimental support.

In one study, it was found that introverts salivate more than extroverts in response to a drop of lemon juice. How does this correlate with Eysenck's theory? Well it confirms the tendency of introverts to react more strongly to stimulus (salivate more in this case) because their internal nervous system is already strongly aroused.

Now another example. Pupil dilation is scientifically related to emotional responses. Normally, when individuals view images that are offensive or which they do not like, they exhibit pupil contraction. Conversely, pleasurable or erotic images tend to elicit pupil dilation (which is a wonderful way to determine whether someone is lying when they assert that "no, this woman is not attractive"). Some studies have found that introverts have a stronger pupil constriction response than extroverts when viewing negatively charged images.
The only reason why introverts would have a stronger response to negative images (thereby exhibiting larger pupil contractions) is if in the first place, their propensity to 'reject' extra stimulus is higher than for extroverts. This would confirm that introvert's innate state of arousal is higher than that of extroverts thereby explaining their tendency to more readily restrict unwanted stimulus.

So there you have it, there is a physiological basis for introversion. It would appear introverts' social behaviour is a by product of various physiological factors rather than an innate trait. Something to ponder about...

Is There Such a Thing as an Average Introvert

Not really.

Baloo the Extrovert and Bagheera the Introvert?

Well for a start, let's look at demographics. We represent about 30% of the population. That's less than half of the population. We are a minority.

We are also, according to studies, slightly more intelligent than extroverts. But don't get excited, you need more than intelligence to progress in life, in fact the debate over whether the best leaders are introverts or extroverts continues.

In the end, other personality traits such as neuroticism, risk-taking, grit, desire for control, desire for new experiences and psychoticism are all integrated into making a person. You can appreciate why introversion alone is not the guiding light in all social behaviour.

Having said that, there is evidence that introverts are more likely to rate higher than extroverts in scales of neuroticism, depression and negative affect (the tendency to feel negative emotions on a daily basis). Conversely, extroversion tends to be associated with higher ratings in positive affect (the tendency to feel good and have positive emotions and enthusiasm), together with higher ratings for aggression and risk-taking.

Surviving in an Extrovert's World.

I have already mentioned that most people are extroverted.
Social norms, as the term 'norm' would indicate, represent the accepted social behaviour of the majority. And we introverts must, often against our deepest wishes, suffer the majority. Often we don't have a choice.

Before I go on with how working and performing effectively may be a struggle for introverts living in an extrovert's world, I want to present another psychological theory.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law.

This law stipulates that "some intermediate level of arousal is optimal for performance" (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985, p. 199).

In other words, it doesn't matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, your performance (e.g. on a stage, at work, at sport) is at its peak when you reach an optimum level of arousal.

So if we had a graph with the bottom axis indicating the external Arousal Level, performance for both extroverts and introverts would be represented with an inverted U shape curve.

Performance as a Function of Arousal

This curve would peak at a lower level of external arousal for introverts than for extroverts. This is because extroverts have, if you recall, a lower level of innate arousal, and therefore require more stimulus before they reach the same performance peak as introverts.

This theory has found support. Geen (1984) measured the preferred stimulation levels in introverts and extroverts and its effects on their arousal and performance. The results indicated that introverts choose a lower level of noise than do the extroverts, and both introverts and extroverts show no difference in arousal and performance with their preferred noise level.

So in other words, if we were all to perform at our best, we would need to each choose our optimum external stimulus level. Unfortunately in many situations, it is the majority which will ultimately choose the degree of 'acceptable' stimulus. So on average, in the world, the amount of external stimulus seems to be an extrovert ideal but not an introvert ideal.

Performing in an Extrovert's World - The Struggles of an Introvert

Let's take two people. Mary is an extrovert. At work, she has no problems typing away and working at her computer while chatting to her boss and having two people looking over her shoulder and discussing what she is doing.

Enter Belinda. Belinda is an introvert. Belinda and Mary are both as proficient as each other but only when both can work at their chosen optimum external stimulus level.

Unfortunately, Belinda works in an average extroverted office. She can not often choose her optimum external stimulus level. As soon as someone looks behind her shoulder, interrupts her or starts to talk, she suddenly loses her ability to perform or forgets what she was doing. Hell, she can't type as quickly as usual or she makes dumb mistakes and hates herself for appearing less competent than she actually really is in front of co-workers.
(This is of course an extreme scenario but it is not an exaggeration.)

What is going on? Well if you remember, Belinda the introvert already has a higher state of innate arousal than Mary. She could do with quiet music but any more than this and she may experience stimulus overflow. She can work fine alone but under the given stimulus conditions, her performance begins to degrade.

Now obviously this example assumes that neither Mary nor Belinda suffer from performance anxiety or social anxiety which would be a different thing altogether and which may also affect their public performance. So assuming that is not the case, this is then, the difference between an introvert and an extrovert at work.

Introverts need more space, more quiet, more time to reflect alone, less buzz around them. They are more likely to do well in smaller groups or on a one on one scenario.

Something organisations should consider.

Now what about Interviews?

I find interviews to be a bit of a joke. Mainly because, unless an introvert is actually doing the interviewing, the bombastic nature of the interview inherently gives an advantage to extroverts. No, really. Do you know how much effort it takes for an introvert to be bombarded by questions and have to rely on chit chat and quick come backs to prove that they are the right person for a sales job? It's hard. In fact most Sales people are extroverted.

Too Much Information! Talk to the Hand

Even in daily work situations, too much oral information can bombard the introvert to the point that they can't handle it. I mean it. There were times in the past when I would just switch off from conversations because it all became too much.

I've since realised that my best weapon against oral bombardment is to write things down. I can happily jot down the bulk of what the most garrulous extroverted group of people digest in one meeting and not understand anything of what is being said.

It is only afterwards, when I return to my quiet cocooned state of optimal introvert arousal that I can read my notes, think back to what was said and finally make sense of the conversation! I'm a bit of a zombie in some meetings but in the end, I survive and can do the work.

Sill however, you can see that life is not always easy for introverts.

Recovering from Parties

Traditionally, parties are the other bane of the introvert. Personally I've given up. If I attend a party, I stay a maximum of three-four hours and then I'm off. Otherwise, I may incur a migraine or it takes me about three days to four days to recover from the stimulus overflow.

Party Time for Extroverts is Always Fun

Antisocial, huh? You try dealing with the party in my brain.


There you have it, being an introvert is more than anything to do with shyness or anti-social behaviour.

It's a physiological state of being which often, but not always, happens to affect social behaviour but which more often than not can really make life difficult for introverts.

Introverts are not weird. They are only attempting to survive in an extrovert's world. They attempt to fend off excess external stimulus in any ways they can, yes, even by shirking from social contact and appearing shy. But if they do this it is only because they want to maintain an optimum state of arousal, something that extroverts, so comfortable are they in this buzzing world, take for granted.