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All Introversion is Not the Same

Dr. Jonathan Cheek discusses four faces of introversion.

If you've read the comments on this blog, you probably noticed that there are 1,001 ways to be introverted.

We can talk about introversion all we want, but the fact is, researchers haven't definitively pinned the word down. It's a broad concept and still a bit slippery, as yet more easily defined by pop psychology than research psychologists, So in this blog over time, we'll both chatter about the pop psychology side and our own experiences, and consider the research that's out there.

Recently I spoke with psychologist Jonathan Cheek, who teaches personality psychology at Wellesley College and studies shyness, self-concept, and identity orientations. He immediately plunged me into introversion's gray area by using the term "shyness" instead.

Are they the same thing? Maybe sorta. Cheek says that while some psychologists think the words are synonymous, others do not. "A lot of it is, do you want to call this thing a table or a chair?" he asks. Well, I don't have the authority to declare it either table or chair, so we'll set aside that debate for now and, like Cheek, call it shyness. But that label is far from one-size-fits-all.

While many people self-identify as shy, whether this is problematic or not depends on their need to socialize—an important distinction, says Cheek. His research identifies four subcategories of shyness.

  1. Shy-secure people self-identify as shy and score somewhat high on the Cheek and Buss Shyness Scale They have some social anxiety but don't need a lot of interaction and don't stress about it. "When they were put in the psych lab and asked to converse with a new acquaintance, they were very low key," explains Cheek. "It doesn't necessarily interest or excite them, but they were calm and they would talk." (This is how a number of us here have described our introversion. Yeah, we can socialize. When we want to or must.)
  2. Shy-withdrawn people are more anxious about affiliating with others. "They have a lot of sensitivity to rejection, fear of negative evaluation, concern about becoming embarrassed and of social faux pas," says Cheek. Shy-withdrawn people struggle more than the shy-secure because in our society, they must frequently do that which makes them anxious.These shy types also might get lonely.
  3. Shy-dependent people want so much to be around others, they are overly accommodating and compliant, and self-effacing. "If you think about it as a social strategy, the withdrawn move away from other people but the dependent move toward other people," says Cheek. "They are affiliative, they go along to get along. They have a better short-term social adaptation profile but long term, how can you build a relationship based on mutuality if you are volunteering to be the junior partner?"
  4. Shy-conflicted people have a high need for affiliation, but also are anxious about it. Cheek calls it the approach-avoid conflict. "They have a conflict between withdrawing or seeking autonomy versus moving towards others," says Cheek. "They vacillate and tend to have anticipatory anxiety." While Cheek is fine with the shy-positive movement (he cites such books as The Highly Sensitive Person and The Gift of Shyness), he thinks shy-conflicted shyness may not be benign. "That type of person tends to, among all shy people, have the most problems," he says.

Of course, this is just one way of analyzing introversion—we'll have lots more to cover. There's also the energy model (the idea of being drained of energy by interactions); thinking introversion vs. social introversion; the biological aspects; the question of narcissism (or not); the large group vs. small group question; and more. But this research provides some good fodder for discussion. Which type are you?


My book, The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released December 4, 2012, just in time for party/festive/family-togetherness season. You know you need it.

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Copyright 2009 Sophia Dembling

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