The Inner Voice

Rethinking Introversion and How We See the World from the Inside

Introversion: A Killer Personality?

Debunking the myth of the introverted psychopath

James Holmes, suspect in the July 20th movie theater shooting in Colorado
University of Colorado, Denver
A horrific event took place on July 20th when a gunman killed several people in a Colorado movie theater. This unpredictable event left many aghast and deeply saddened.

What was more predictable was the inevitable backlash against introverts. Many step forward, claiming that the gunman was an introvert, and society gives a knowing nod, as though the temperament itself is an affliction.

One introverted reporter wrote an interesting piece to try to make sense of this phenomenon: (LA Times—The CO Theater Shooting: An Introvert's Opinion). In sum, the introvert is separate from society and might draw suspicion as outcasts would, and may, in turn, silently resent society. This rather grim conclusion precedes a more optimistic (and accurate) assertion that the author makes: that there are many kinds of introverts, and they may be more “normal” but simply need to recharge after social engagements.

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The intuitive stance that this author makes is backed by about a century of research. While many have argued about what, exactly, introversion is, we can all agree that there is disagreement, and it does not appear to be a singular trait or homogeneous set of traits.

But why do introverts get such a bad rap? Is there something about introversion that predisposes people to psychopathy?

A 2010 study by Miller and colleagues looked into the “Vulnerable Dark Triad,” comprised of hypersensitive narcissism (covert narcissism, link here to the scale: Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale), psychopathy, and borderline personality disorder. They describe that this “triad” is related to negative emotionality and antagonistic interpersonal styles AND to introversion and disinhibition. First, I’d like to express my opinion that college students are likely not an ideal subject pool for testing psychopathy and borderline personality disorder. With increasing amounts of a trait, it may be expressed differently as it interacts with your other traits, and it likely starts to look different. Additionally, personality is the interaction of a number of traits and temperaments, not one in isolation.

Now, then, which introversion are we discussing? We included hypersensitive narcissism as a marker of “anxious introversion” in our four-domain model (Grimes, Cheek, & Norem, 2011), but NOT in social or thinking introversion. The people that the journalist above referenced who like to have time for their imagination, but otherwise like people, would be our “thinking introverts.” We found that this domain is statistically quite separate from anxious introversion. We have no reason to think that there is an antisocial component to thinking by default.

If you’re still not sick enough of feeling pathologized for your preference for solitude, your need to recharge, and your enjoyment of imagination, get this: a recommendation was made to the new DSM-V to consider introversion-extroversion as a continuum that extends into personality disorders—it might mean considering this dimension when diagnosing clinical personality disorders. This is not entirely bad—almost anything taken to an extreme can be bad, and Dr. Robert Krueger really means to use this dimension to make sense of how pathology is directed (not that the dimension itself is pathological). However, I’m awaiting the backlash that sends introversion under the bus when folks misunderstand this intent. I’m also noting that impulsivity and inhibition are separate in his model for the DSM: the reason we included inhibition as a fourth domain in our 2011 model was because it has been included in the definition of introversion since at least the 1930s in the Guilford-Eysenck debates. I favor the (long-standing) idea that inhibition is a domain of introversion, though pop media puts introversion and impulsivity together to create the miscreant (especially since inhibition, NOT impulsivity, correlates with the other domains of introversion). Would it not be more accurate to say that a form of introversion must interact with other traits to create something destructive, instead of assuming that it is introversion alone that is pathological?

I’m worried that we are defining introversion all wrong: instead of following the conceptual and empirical threads, we’re starting to remold it into something new (and not necessarily sufficiently descriptive) and pathological. The temptation is there, as there is an anxious domain, but as there are anxious extroverts, there are nonanxious introverts. Being anxious also doesn't mean wanting to kill people. Directing energy inward does not mean directing it outward antagonistically because you are disturbed inside.

Let’s give this one back to Jung and think about the thinking introvert as someone with a rich inner life, who directs energy inward, not one that dreams in Freudian death drives.

Jennifer Grimes is a research assistant at Wellesley College.

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