Introversion is a basic personality style characterized by a preference for the inner life of the mind over the outer world of other people. One of the Big Five dimensions that define all personalities, introversion sits on a continuum at the opposite end of which is extroversion. Compared to extroverts, introverts enjoy subdued and solitary experiences.
Introverts do not fear or dislike others, and they are neither shy nor plagued by loneliness. A crowded cocktail party may be torture for introverts, but they enjoy one-on-one engagement in calm environments, which is more suited to the make-up of their nervous system. Evidence suggests that, unlike with extroverts, the brains of introverts do not react strongly to viewing novel human faces; in such situations they produce less dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward.
The term introversion was popularized by Carl Jung and suggests an inwards orientation to one’s own mental life rather than the outward orientation of extroverts to social life. Introverts gain energy from reflection and lose energy in social gatherings. Most people are neither purely introverted nor purely extroverted but display features of both—they are so-called ambiverts. Almost all people, for example, need occasional solitude to replenish their energy.
Cultures differ in how they value certain personality traits, and America likes its extroverts; it rewards assertiveness and encourages people to speak up. Studies suggest that there are just as many introverts as extroverts, but they are less visible and certainly less noisy. First and foremost, introverts seek out and enjoy opportunities for reflection and solitude; they think better by themselves. They are drained by too much social interaction and are the first to leave a party. Even as children, they prefer to observe first and act later.
One clue that introverts are happy comes from studies showing that they react differently to various stimuli than do extroverts. For example, introverts are more responsive to internally generated brain activity, from planning ahead to remembering the past. They are content with their own thoughts and don’t need a steady stream of novelty and emotional arousal to experience pleasure; they prefer the quiet of calm to the high of happiness.
Introversion appears to be a stable facet of personality influenced, like all personality traits, by genetics as well as environmental factors. Neuroimaging studies show different patterns of brain activation in introverts and extroverts, suggesting basic biological differences in the wiring of brain circuits. Nevertheless, studies show that introverts can learn to act in a more extroverted manner if they make a plan to change specific behaviors—say, make an effort to initiate a conversation with an acquaintance. Some evidence suggests that doing so increases a sense of well-being among introverts.
Introversion is often mistaken for shyness because both are characterized by limited social interaction, but the resemblance stops there. Those who are shy typically want to engage with others but are fearful of doing so. They are highly self-conscious and easily inhibited by others. Many introverts, on the other hand, socialize easily; they just strongly prefer to do so in very small groups or, sometimes, not at all.
Introversion is a positively healthy, if often misunderstood, way of negotiating the world. With a low threshold for small talk and superficialities, introverts enjoy conversations that are deep and meaningful. That can make them highly attuned to those they engage with. Such notable introverts as Albert Einstein and J.K. Rowling exemplify the creative edge that can come from strong engagement with one’s inner world
Introverts can make excellent leaders because they tend to be guided by their own values and can make difficult decisions through careful analysis without feeling the intense need for social approval. They influence others and lead them to important goals by quiet power rather than displays of ego. Introverts may do best when leading people who are proactive, while extroverted leaders can find such people threatening.
Because they have a finite amount of social energy, introverts tend to have one or two close friends rather than a large social circle. They prefer in-depth relationships to casual ones. Given their orientation, introverts run the risk of being seen as not liking others or labeled as aloof or arrogant. They run the clinical risk of being seen as suffering from social phobia or even avoidant personality disorder when they are not.
There’s truth to the belief that opposites attract, and many marriages are happy introvert-extrovert pairings. But especially in novel social settings, introverts and extroverts are at risk of misunderstanding each other. As introverts struggle to monitor all the strands of conversation and may even be plotting an exit strategy, their quiet may be mistaken for deeply engaged listening, which spurs extroverts to keep talking.