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Introversion

Why Introverts May Find It Hard When Life Returns to Normal

With lockdowns ending in many places, the transition may be tough.

Key points

  • Introverts often prefer locations that are secluded and isolated, so may have thrived during the pandemic.
  • Introverts tend to minimize social interactions and stay closer to their own thoughts than conversations with others, research suggests.
  • It's possible for introverts to adapt to the new normal if they are able to find quiet amid the noise.

With the pandemic easing in some parts of the world, particularly certain regions of the U.S., workplaces will be opening up once again to allow, or require, that their employees return for at least part of their workweeks. At the same time, social gathering places are gradually easing restrictions and making it possible for people to once again eat and drink with their friends, go to the theater, and attend live sporting events.

These pandemic-related changes can’t come fast enough for people who’ve experienced social distancing and isolation as tremendous hardships, even while recognizing their necessity. However, what about those who’ve learned to like spending their days and nights within the same four walls? What will this transition be like for them?

According to Columbia University’s Shigehiro Oishi and University of Virginia’s Hyewon Choi (2020), in research based on data collected before the pandemic, there’s a reason that in the new post-pandemic world, introverts could indeed choose not to jump back into the social fray. In a 2019 study, Oishi and his team of collaborators reported that introverts might indeed fare better during lockdown if they use the time to enhance their sense of meaning in life. In the 2020 study, the authors directly address the ways that personality can predict the preferences that people have to stay home or go out in the 2021 shifting social landscape.

The Connection Between Geography and Your Personality

Perhaps you’ve never stopped to think about how your own personality is related to your current location. It’s possible that you live in a city environment because that’s where you grew up, or you want to live close to urban-dwelling friends and family. But how many times have you had the chance to relocate, but didn’t? Similarly, if you’re living in a rural or highly dispersed suburban population in which you grew up, you've stayed because of your local ties to the community. When you got a job in the city, though, did you decide to undergo the long commute just to be able to live away from the hustle and bustle?

As the researchers note, “One of the seminal insights stemming from personality research offers the idea that individuals choose certain situations in order to fulfill certain internal needs and desires.” In line with this observation, they cite evidence from previous studies that “high-sociability individuals growing up in a rural area are more likely to migrate to an urban area than those low-sociability individuals with the same rural background—perhaps due to the high-sociability individuals’ desire for a more exciting life.”

All of this previous research, though, focuses on large-scale geographic classifications such as rural-urban or remote-central. Yet, because some of the factors determining where people live are indeed out of their control, it might make sense to look at how personality relates to people’s choices of where, within their given location, they choose to spend their time. Consider, for example, whether you’d rather sit at the bar in a crowded restaurant for a night out with your partner, or instead seek a more serene scene with plenty of private booths and tables?

The pandemic restrictions forced everyone to spend their time in those isolated spaces if they even were able to leave the house. Now that more people are being allowed to cram in once again to sit at the same bar or shoulder-to-shoulder at a concert or ball game, what would you gravitate toward now that you have the freedom to do so?

With these questions in mind, Oishi and Choi sought to examine (again, in a pre-pandemic world) the choices that people differing in introversion-extraversion would make as they move about these smaller types of locations.

Testing the Introversion-Spatial Preference Relationship

Given that people can make choices about where they’d rather be within the same geographic location, the question that Oishi and Choi decided to test was whether there would be a relationship between personality and geographical preferences within the same habitat.

Using a field study approach, the authors first assessed where people differing in personality went when given free choice and secondly, whether the personalities of people the researchers found sitting in different types of spaces varied systematically based on the introversion-extraversion dimension. If personality matters when it comes to choosing where to go within a given space, introverts should both choose and be found in the ones that give them the opportunity to think, not speak.

College campuses provide an ideal location for testing the personality-space relationship given that they represent somewhat of a controlled environment (i.e. all members of the community share an educational focus) but also vary considerably in population denseness. You can sit in a library carrel, protected, more or less, from the chatter of other students. Alternatively, you can choose to do your reading in the middle of a cluttered campus cafeteria with the clatter of your lunch-eating fellow students all around you.

In the first field study (conducted in 2015), the research team recruited university students and asked them to report to one of three campus locations for an initial meeting. At that point, the students completed a personality questionnaire based on the Five Factor Model, with extraversion-introversion being one factor.

Then the experimenters gave the students 45 minutes to wander around as they wished, taking photos of where they spent the most time. Participants also rated their chosen locations with labels that included, for example, “flat,” “open,” “peaceful,” “relaxing,” “stimulating,” and “sociable.” To control for the effect of weather, research assistants working with the students recorded the temperature and prevailing conditions (sunny, rainy, cloudy).

As the authors predicted, and after controlling for factors such as weather and the four other Five Factor personality traits, people higher in extraversion indeed spent their free time in “exciting” locations and less time in those that were “secluded.” However, the weather rained for the majority of data collection points, meaning that the outside conditions limited the extent to which participants were likely to wander around outdoors.

In the next phase of the study, the research team asked participants who were already present at one of 32 locations on campus to complete the personality measure. The locations used for recruiting these students represented outdoor and indoor sites, varying in distance from the central point of the university, and included gyms, dormitories, libraries, academic buildings, cafés, lawns, and the student union. This time, the research assistants took photos of the locations as well as recording the weather on each day of data collection.

After collapsing the 32 sites into categories based on distance from the center of campus and degree of seclusion, the authors once again showed the role of personality as a factor in predicting preferred geographic locations. Participants higher in extraversion were the ones that researchers encountered in central, less secluded spots on campus. Those high in introversion, by contrast, set themselves up in quieter spaces away from the campus hub.

How to Handle Re-entry If You’ve Enjoyed the Seclusion of Social Distancing

As the authors concluded, “individuals high in extraversion perhaps gravitated toward certain geographical features (e.g., an opportunity for social interaction, a chance of spontaneous events).” Introverts, by comparison, look for ways to minimize social interaction where they can remain closer to their own thoughts than the words of others. For people emerging from the pandemic whose preferences veer on the introversion-seclusion end, you can see that this personality quality can indeed present a challenge.

However, there’s also hope in the findings. As the authors noted at the outset, there’s a difference between macro (rural vs. urban) and micro (secluded vs. open) environments. Even though your work or resumption of activities with family and friends means that you are prodded out of your comfort zone, you can still define for yourself the spaces in which you can find at least some moments of peace and quiet.

Of course, your desk may be located in the middle of a large open plan office or that family gathering may be taking place at a picnic ground or backyard. However, within socially acceptable and feasible limits, there are still ways to find your own quiet spot. Even if you consider the typical college campus, students will be or already are returning to lecture halls and dorm cafeterias. Again, though, there can be ways for you to carve out the nook or cranny into which you can at least temporarily go for respite.

To sum up, personality doesn’t have to be the limiting factor that makes it hard for you to resume your pre-pandemic life. Perhaps informed by the experiences you had while under social distancing mandates, you can now make choices about where to spend your free time that will allow you to feel most comfortable and fulfilled.

References

Oishi, S., & Choi, H. (2020). Personality and space: Introversion and seclusion. Journal of Research in Personality, 85.doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103933

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