The Inner Voice

Rethinking Introversion and How We See the World from the Inside

Blame the Loner! (Actually, Don't)

Is it really the quiet ones you have to watch?

Norway was no exception. Every time tragedy strikes at the hands of a killer, i.e., someone whom others don't understand (and likely shouldn't), I always cringe and wait for it: that time when people remark that "he was always a loner." Well, that doesn't exactly say nice things about loners. Is that fair? Why do we do it? And why does that headline attract our attention?

There are likely a number of reasons why we like to pin such violence and deviant behavior on being a loner. We have no great answers to this, especially as our focus is frequently on the tragedy itself. But we should start to think about why this might be so.

One possible reason for focusing on a tendency to be a loner and to assume a correlation between that temperament and violence may be a process of dissociating further from the killer. It may be an observation that people who don't like people don't associate with them. It is likely some combination of both factors. However, do we really feel so much better when we label the killer as the outgroup? Probably not, if you are used to also being labeled as the reclusive self-defined outgroup!

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Naturally, I find it interesting that MSN reported in a headline that "In rural town, Norway attacker seemed a city loner." There are many of us who don't feel like we belong, and more still who don't make "belonging" to a large community a top priority. But what scares me most is the tendency to conflate a preference for solitude with pathology. Burger's (1995) measurement model is a component of social introversion, one of the four domains of introversion that I propose with Jonathan Cheek and Julie Norem (2011). In essence, some people just like being alone, they prefer solitary activities, and "alone time" is peaceful and preferable.

As a preference for solitude is often conflated with introversion (after all, a lot of people think introversion simply means low sociability), so introversion is confused with other things. Frequently, shyness and introversion are lumped together, though there are non-shy introverts and shy extroverts (Cheek has done some really excellent work on this). I argued that high-functioning autism might also look like introversion in my MA thesis. Some also pull schizoid tendencies into this stew of personalities that pull away from others. However, there are different reasons for pulling away. How unfair to conflate violence with social introversion--OR with a mere preference for solitude! And how incorrect to consider asocial tendencies to be antisocial...

As many inhabitants of northern climes have been proposed to have adaptive shyness (Kagan had some neat theories about why iris pigmentation might be associated with shyness and reclusion), it seems an ironic twist for the killer to be labeled a loner (with the implication that most functioning people there are not). In fact, we can be sure that most introverts do like people--just differently.

So, to make my point very clear: introversion does not predispose people to antisocial motives. Antisocial motives may appear to also result in pulling away from other people socially. The relationship is NOT a clear correlation, and the two are NOT the same!

 

Jennifer Grimes is a research assistant at Wellesley College.

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