An introvert and an extrovert walk into a bar. (No, this is not a joke.) It’s a Saturday night, and the place is packed. A cover band is rocking on stage, dozens of people are talking loudly over mugs of beer, and it’s loud.
The extrovert takes in the scene and gets excited. He sees opportunities everywhere — an attractive stranger at the bar, friends he can talk to, and the chance to cut loose and have fun. He walks straight up to his group of friends, slaps one of them a high five, and orders a beer.
The introvert sees the situation differently. He hangs back for a moment, looking around, taking everything in. Then, he walks quietly up to his group of friends and waits for one to acknowledge him before he speaks. He feels a bit overwhelmed, drowning in all the noise and activity, but he tells himself to relax: This is supposed to be fun.
And the introvert does have fun, for a while. He drinks a beer and catches up with a friend he hasn’t seen since college. He even dances when the band plays his favorite song. But it doesn’t last. Soon, the introvert grows tired. Not just “I could use a quick catnap” tired, but really tired. His brain has turned to mush. He has trouble spitting out sentences. His whole body feels physically fatigued.
He’s getting an introvert hangover.
He glances over at the extrovert, who is doing shots with a pair of women he apparently just met. The extrovert doesn’t show any signs of slowing down; in fact, he looks even more energized than when they arrived.
Why do introverts get more drained by socializing than extroverts?
Of course, this example is a generalization. Not every extrovert spends the weekend partying, and sometimes introverts live it up, too. We all act introverted at times and extroverted at others; according to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, there is no such thing as a “pure” introvert or extrovert. We all fall somewhere on a sliding scale.
And socializing is actually draining for everyone eventually, according to a recent study. Researchers found that after three hours after socializing, participants reported higher levels of fatigue. Surprisingly, these effects were found to be true for both introverts and extroverts. This makes sense because socializing expends energy: You have to talk, listen, and process what’s being said, among other things.
Nevertheless, there are some very real differences between introverts and extroverts, and these differences come down to how they respond to rewards. Rewards are things like getting the phone number of an attractive stranger, getting promoted at work, or even eating a delicious meal.
According to the experts I spoke with when writing my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, extroverts have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Having a more active dopamine reward system means that extroverts get more energized and excited by the possibility of reward than introverts. So extroverts are more driven to strike up a conversation with a stranger or hang out at the bar until last call.
Of course, introverts also care about having relationships, eating, and getting ahead at work. But simply put, introverts just aren’t as interested in pursuing the things that extroverts chase.
Having a less active dopamine reward system also means that introverts may find certain levels of stimulation — like noise and activity — to be punishing and tiring. This explains why the introvert in our bar example had fun for a little while but felt drained as he became overstimulated.
Is It Bad to Care Less About Rewards?
Introverts don’t seek rewards to the same degree that extroverts do. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. We all have that one friend who partied too hard and paid a price, or who focused so much on getting ahead that she became a workaholic, compromising her health and relationships. These are people who chased rewards — hard.
Instead of looking for outside status, introverts tend to turn inward. They research a topic simply for the joy of learning something new. Job-wise, they seek a calling that is more than just a paycheck. They desire depth and intimacy in relationships, a connection that is mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart.
This isn’t to say that all extroverts are shallow and all introverts deep. It’s not black and white. Sometimes extroverts pursue quiet, intrinsically rewarding activities, and sometimes introverts seek status, money, popularity, and other rewards. I’d argue that a healthy, successful life for anyone includes a mix of both the introvert’s way and the extrovert’s.
When I asked introverts to tell me about the things that motivated and energized them, they all mentioned low-key activities, like a solo shopping trip, a meaningful conversation with a friend, finishing a good book, or expressing themselves through art. If it weren’t for the introverts’ less active dopamine reward system, they probably wouldn’t be focusing on these types of activities. The introvert’s way isn’t about chasing rewards, but rather about seeking meaning.
Check out my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts.