Shrinking Violet: Being Introverted In An Extroverted World



Networking, brainstorming sessions, teamwork. The fast-paced modern world of business emphasizes outgoingness and collaboration. Collectivity is widely believed to produce better ideas and boost workplace success. But what if you happen to be introverted?

One-third to one-half of Americans would fit the definition of introverted — more comfortable when they’re left alone to their own devices, faring better on their own rather than in big crowds. Yet the overriding message in American society is that it’s better to be outgoing — to make lots of friends and have an active social life. Extroversion is often associated with confidence, leadership, and happiness. Introverts could feel undervalued. Do extroverts fare better in work and life? If you are introverted, should you change?

Neuroscientists are now uncovering what makes people behave one way or the other. Whether you are extroverted or introverted may in fact have to do with the way your brain responds to reward.

Extroverts And Introverts: A World Apart?

Personality affects how we experience our lives. It influences how we interact, the careers we choose, and whether we succeed at them. Introversion and extroversion are two key aspects of personality that influence our behavior.

We see extroverts as talkative, sociable, and comfortable in the spotlight. They get their energy from engaging with the outside world and social interaction. Extroverts tend to think out loud, make quick decisions, and work well in teams.

Introverts are typically seen as quiet, reserved, and deliberate. However, introversion is not the same as being shy or withdrawn. Introverts often simply need some “alone time” to recharge after spending time away from familiar surroundings. They feel drained by socializing and gather renewed energy from their internal world of thoughts and feelings. Introverts generally prefer to reflect before acting.

The terms “introversion” and “extroversion” were popularized by the legendary psychotherapist Carl Jung in the 1920s. Jung believed that extroverts direct their attention toward the outside, while introverts focus inward. The psychologist Hans Eysenck later suggested that the divergent tendencies were due to differences in cortical arousal. He proposed that extroverts have a low level of arousal and need stimulation to reach their optimal state, while introverts have a higher level of arousal and are therefore easily overstimulated by social interaction and crowds.

Almost nobody is completely extroverted or introverted. “It’s a continuum,” says Dr. Jacob Hirsh, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, Canada. “Extroversion and introversion are very situation-dependent.” We may see ourselves as one or the other, yet we are all moving along the spectrum between two extremes.

Are The Brains Of Extroverts And Introverts Different?

So what determines where one is on the spectrum? How much of our disposition is due to genetics? Studies show that the brains of introverts and extroverts really are different. The latest research suggests that extroversion is fueled by dopamine, a brain chemical linked to reward. According to the reward theory, extroverts and introverts differ in how sensitive they are to the possibility of reward.

Several different types of studies have revealed differences in the reward system. Brain scans have shown that parts of the reward system are larger in extroverts, for instance. Other studies show more brain activity in extroverts when they get a reward, dopamine being the core component of extroversion.

Research on dopamine genetics led by Dr. Michael Cohen compared how introverts and extroverts respond to winning a bet. After completing a personality test, participants were placed in a scanner and given a gambling task. Brain scans revealed differences in activity among the introverts and extroverts. When the gamble paid off, the extroverts had more activity in the amygdala (emotion) and the nucleus accumbens (reward center) than their more introverted counterparts.

The researchers also performed gene tests and found divergent genetic profiles between participants when it came to reward processing. People who had a gene associated with increased sensitivity to dopamine showed more brain activity when they won. “The way that extroverts and introverts respond to their environment is different,” says Hirsh, who has studied reward sensitivity in extroversion. “Whenever we perceive a reward the dopamine reward circuit is active.” Extrovert brains respond more strongly to possible reward, so a gamble will seem worth it.

Other studies have involved risk-taking, learning, and happiness. “Moments of more extroverted behavior seem to be associated with positive emotion,” says Dr. John Zelenski, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Happiness is difficult to define and measure, however. As with the other theories, there are no clear answers.

At least half of the difference between introverts and extroverts is genetic. This may explain why reward does not translate into motivation in introverts. Conversely, extroverts may be hardwired to be more motivated to pursue rewarding social situations, status, and social affiliation.

The Big Picture

So, are introverts less socially engaged? Are they better off in some careers or roles? According to Dr. Emma Donaldson-Feilder, an occupational psychologist and director of Affinity Health at Work in the United Kingdom: “Extroversion and introversion are preferences rather than actual skills.” She stresses that someone who identifies with either type can be proficient in social skills.

“Social skills are multidimensional,” says Hirsh. “Emotional intelligence, being a good listener, and being receptive all fall within social skills.” Certain jobs also require different personality traits than one might expect. “You would think that for sales extroversion would be better,” says Zelenski.

“But you can go too far and rub people the wrong way.” What about leadership roles? According to a study published in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, introverts are less likely to emerge as leaders. While roughly half the population is introverted, 60 to 96% of bosses are best described as extroverted.

That does not mean that extroverts make better managers though, says Dr. Stephan Dilchert, associate professor of management at Baruch College in New York, who co-authored the study. “An extreme level of extroversion might make a person less effective in seeking input from others,” he says. “If you are managing people with great ideas, you might miss out on an opportunity to listen.”

“Either an extrovert or introvert can be a good leader,” says Donaldson-Feilder. “The qualities that are really important to good leadership are self-awareness, knowing your own strengths, and being able to mitigate areas where you’re not as strong.”

Yet there does seem to be a bias toward extroversion in Western cultures, especially in places like the United States, Britain, and Canada. In her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” Susan Cain writes of the “extrovert ideal” — an obsession for reaching an ideal self, having us believe that we should aspire to be gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. Some researchers say the trend is increasing.

“Society tends to idealize, or romanticize, extroversion,” says Hirsh. He believes introverts could feel pressure to be more extroverted. So, should you act extroverted? Introverts can display some degree of extroversion — however, Dilchert says sustaining this attitude is more tiring for them. “Over time it will take an emotional and physical toll if you go against your natural tendencies to think and feel and act.” Donaldson-Feilder says that the charisma is not always essential. “It’s better to be authentic than to be someone you’re not.”

It’s important to step out of your comfort zone now and then. Yet whether you are introverted or extroverted, discovering where your abilities lie and how to tap into them can help you do your best and most creative work.

“The key to success is understanding your own personality and developing life strategies and social strategies that are congruent with your personality,” says Hirsh. Drawing on your natural strengths is vital. As Donaldson-Feilder says, it’s more important to be who you are — that applies to friendships, partnerships, teamwork, and leadership.

Extroverts Versus Introverts

  • Extroverts are typically seen as talkative, sociable, and comfortable in the spotlight.
  • Introverts are characterized as calm, needing a quiet place to reflect.
  • Either an extrovert or introvert may be shy. A shy extrovert craves interaction, but fears rejection.
  • Traits of introversion and extroversion are 40 to 60% hereditary.
  • Introversion-Extroversion is one of the four main categories on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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