I hate people. I must hate people. I recently took a night class at a local university, and I didn’t learn any of my classmates’ names. I never spoke to any of them. I just knew them by description.
Asian woman with glasses. Asian woman without glasses. Australian woman. British woman. Dude with beard. Dude without beard. Am I a jerk? Maybe. But maybe something else is going on.
I’ve been called many things in my life. Reserved. Shy. I especially like anti-social; my older sister came up with that one (thanks, Jessica). And I believed them all until I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
It turns out that I’m an introvert. That doesn’t sound too bad. Or does it? Why do I often feel like my introversion is something that needs to be fixed? Can it be fixed?
Simply put, introverts find social settings to be exhausting. I can’t count how many nights I went home after a networking event and crashed on my couch. In contrast, extroverts love social settings; they thrive on them. Society rewards people who are gregarious. It hires them. It elects them. It likes them. But what if whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert is predetermined? What if you’re just born that way?
Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan believes just that. Kagan exposed infants to various stimuli, including popping balloons and alcohol-soaked cotton swabs. He followed up with these children at two, four, seven and 11 years old, exposing them to different stimuli. Kagan found that those who reacted strongly to the stimuli were introverts, exhibiting serious and careful personalities at each age. The children with minimal reaction to the stimuli were confident and relaxed; they were extroverts (Kagan and Snidman, 2004).
Want more proof? Massachusetts General Hospital’s Carl Schwartz showed pictures of unfamiliar faces to the children (now adults) from Kagan’s study, then analyzed their brain activity using MRI. Schwartz found that the children whom Kagan deemed introverted reacted more strongly to the pictures, showing more brain activity than those who were extroverted (Schwartz et al., 2003).
Still not convinced? Introverts and extroverts not only respond to unfamiliar images differently, they value rewards differently, too. Researchers at the University of Toronto conducted a study giving participants a choice between receiving a small reward immediately or a larger reward in two to four weeks. They then scanned the participants’ brains using MRI. The extroverts chose the smaller reward. Their brain scans were markedly different than those of the introverts, who overwhelmingly chose the larger reward (Hirsh et al., 2010).
So it’s settled: I was born an introvert and will die an introvert. No matter how much more comfortable I become in social settings, I’ll still be an introvert. If I had learned the names of all my classmates, I’d remain an introvert. I’m as introverted as I am left-handed. There’s nothing wrong with me or people like me. Take that, Jessica!
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
Kagan, J. & Snidman, N. (2004). The Long Shadow of Temperament. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schwartz, C.E., Wright, C.I., Shin, L.M., Kagan, J., & Rauch, S.L. (2003). Inhibited and uninhibited infants “grown up”: Adult amygdalar response to novelty. Science, 300(5627), 1952-1953.
Hirsh, J.B., Guindon, A., Morisano, D., & Peterson, J.B. (2010). Positive mood effects on delay discounting. Emotion, 10(5), 717-21.