It's True: We Become More Introverted With Age
It happens to everyone (even extroverts), and it turns out to be a good thing.
Posted Sep 14, 2018
People tell me all the time: “I’ve gotten more introverted as I’ve gotten older.”
On many levels, the same is true for me. In high school and college, it was normal for me to spend almost every Friday and Saturday night out with friends (even though as an introvert, it often drained me). Now, in my 30s, the perfect weekend is one with zero social plans.
And I'm not the only one who's slowed down a bit. Even my very extroverted childhood friend is more content to spend the night in, hanging out with her family. In fact, she and I hardly ever go out anymore.
Do we get more introverted as we get older?
Probably, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet. In a post on Quiet Revolution, Cain confirms what you've probably suspected all along—we act more “introverted” as we age. Psychologists call this phenomenon “intrinsic maturation,” and it means our personalities become more balanced as we get older—“a kind of fine wine that mellows with age,” writes Cain.
Generally, people become more emotionally stable, agreeable, and conscientious as they leave their youth behind. They also become quieter and more self-contained, needing less socializing and excitement to be happy.
Psychologists have observed intrinsic maturation in people from Germany, the UK, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. They’ve also seen it happen in chimps and monkeys.
It’s why we slow down and start enjoying a quieter, calmer life—both introverts and extroverts.
Becoming More Introverted Is a Good Thing
From an evolutionary standpoint, becoming more “introverted” as we age makes sense. And it’s probably a good thing.
“High levels of extroversion probably help with mating, which is why most of us are at our most sociable during our teenage and young adult years,” writes Cain.
In other words, acting somewhat more extroverted when you’re young helps you make important social connections and ultimately meet a life partner. (It's also why young adults often ask me if they might be an "extroverted introvert" or an ambivert, despite showing all of the signs of being true introverts.)
Then—theoretically—by the time we've reached our 30s, we’ve settled down into a committed relationship. So it becomes less important to constantly be meeting new people.
“If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been,” writes Cain.
In the married-with-children years, just think of how difficult it would be to raise a family and love the one you’re with if you were constantly popping into the next party. So it’s probably a good thing—for the sake of our families, relationships, and careers—that we become more introverted.
Once an Introvert, Always an Introvert
But there’s a catch. Our personalities can only change so much. In fact, in my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, I like to say that our personalities change, but our temperaments don’t.
That means, if you’re an introvert, you’ll probably always be an introvert, even when you’re 85 years old. And if you’re an extrovert—even though you’ll slow down a bit as you age—you’ll always be extroverted at your core.
Research confirms this idea. In 2004, Harvard psychologists Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman began studying individuals as babies and later as adults. In one study, they presented babies with unfamiliar stimuli and recorded their reactions. Some babies got upset, crying and thrashing their arms and legs. These babies were highly reactive to their environment.
Other babies didn’t get upset and remained calm around the new stimuli. These were the “low reactive” babies.
Later, Kagan and Snidman returned to these people when they were older. What they found was the babies who were “highly reactive” grew up to be more cautious and fearful—traits which overlap with being introverts or even highly sensitive people. The “low reactive” babies remained sociable and daring even as adults.
The babies’ basic temperaments—cautious or sociable—didn’t change much, even as they got older.
An Example: Your High School Reunion
If all of this sounds confusing, take your high school reunion as an example.
Let’s say you were a very introverted teenager in high school—perhaps the fifth most introverted person in your class.
As you’ve gotten older, you’ve become more comfortable in your own skin, but you’ve also become somewhat more introverted. If you liked hanging out with friends, say, once a week in high school, by the time you're in your mid-30s, you’re fine with seeing friends only once or twice a month.
When you attend your 10-year high school reunion, you notice that everyone has slowed down a bit. They’re all enjoying a somewhat more calm, stable, quieter life. But the people you remember as being quite extroverted in school are still more extroverted than you.
You’re still approximately the fifth most introverted person in your class. It’s just that the whole set has moved a little more to the introverted side.
And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it might be just what we need to flourish as adults. If there's one thing we introverts know, it's just how satisfying a quiet, calm life can be.
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