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? And 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 However, introversion is not the same as being shy or withdrawn.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 Jacob Hirsh, Ph.D., 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.

In 2005, research on dopamine genetics led by 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 include 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. And 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.

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