I’m an introvert. I know it and, if you read this blog, you probably know it too. But until this week, I didn’t realise how consistent introversion is with some of my other traits which I’ve not always been able to make sense of. I also hadn’t discovered that introversion may not just be a preference but, in fact, influenced by physiological factors.
Now before you comment on my sources, I’ll be upfront. This all comes from one of those popular business psychology kind of books. It could all be a bit airy-fairy. Except that it’s written by an introverted ex-Wall Street lawyer. And, as you know: introversion + lawyerdom = an obsessive commitment to details and accurate communication.
Of course, I’m an introverted ex-City laywer so I can say that.
So, with that out of the way, I can share some snippets from Quiet by Susan Cain. If you’ve not heard of it, you probably should have. It’s been out for something over a year now and the TED talk has had 4.5 million hits. If you’re an introvert, it’ll make sense of some stuff for you. And if you’re an extrovert or somewhere near the middle, then the introverts in your life would appreciate it if you read it!
What follows is longer than I’d planned but I wanted to do at least some level of justice to the research being cited. In all honesty, though, you’d do best to order the book!
Cain writes about a study by Kagan et al, launched in 1989, which looked at 500 four-month-old babies, aiming to predict whether they would develop extroverted or introverted temperaments as they grew up. Kagan subjected these babies to a selection of new experiences: recorded voices and balloons popping, colourful mobiles moving in front of their faces and the smell of alcohol-soaked cotton buds. Their reactions were varied. About 20% cried and kicked their legs; about 40% remained calm; and the final 40% fell somewhere in the middle. Kagan dubbed the 20%ers ‘high-reactive’ and predicted – perhaps counter-intuitively – that these would be the ones who, as teenagers, would be quiet.
This was a longitudinal study so the same group of children returned at ages 2, 4, 7 and 11 for more testing. The tests varied with the age groups and adults observed how the children reacted to the strange situations in which they were placed, recording body language and how often and how spontaneously they laughed, talked and smiled. They also asked the children and their parents what they were like outside of the test context: did they have a small or large circle of friends? did they like visiting new places? were they risk-takers or more cautious, shy or bold? The testing also included some physical testing – heart rate, blood pressure, finger temperature and other indicators of the nervous system which are controlled by the amygdala. The more reactive the amygdala, the higher the heart rate is likely to be, the greater the dilation of the eyes, the tighter the vocal cords and the greater the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the saliva.
This bit is the interesting part. Kagan and his team found that high- and low-reactivity (both to external stimuli and as measured by tests to indicate the reactivity of the amygdala) tend to correspond to introversion and extroversion, though he is clear that this physiological element is not the only route to introversion. High-reactivity essentially means a high level of response to external stimuli, and especially novelty, and meant that those children responded with greater degrees of stress to novelty. Later research by Kagan’s protégé, Schwartz, then extended the testing of this group into adulthood. What he found is fascinating. Though many of the test subjects had learned to ‘stretch’ their personalities and to deal more effectively with novelty, ‘the footprint of a high- or low-reactive temperament never disappeared in adulthood’ and was still measurable.
Associated with high-reactivity of the amygdala is unwarranted fear. Though in adulthood this fear is usually suppressed by the frontal cortex – the part of the brain from which our logical, calming self-talk issues – it can, at times of stress, come galloping back because at those times ‘the cortex has other things to do than soothe an excitable amygdala’. That’s interesting to me because it is something I have always fought – fear and risk aversion.
Also associated with high-reactivity is the requirement of a lower degree of stimulation than those who are low-reactive (Eysenck). This much is probably apparent to most of us: there is a reason why introverts close their office doors, why we communicate better on e-mail than in person, why we often are happiest engaged in quiet, intellectual or reflective activity. Too many people in our faces is just too much stimulation. Team-building activities are pretty much anathema. Though we endure them when we have to! In fact, for me, too much people stuff – and, let me say, my definition of ‘too much’ seems to be lower than most people’s! – actually leaves me feeling something physical, as if what is holding me together is stretched beyond its limit, as if I am about to explode into a thousand pieces and fly off in every direction. I have no sense of personal integration, of wholeness, at those times and it is all I can do sometimes to be present. I know it sounds extreme when I put it into words and that the extroverts particularly will wonder how high levels of people stimulation can provoke such a physical reaction. All I can say is trust me on this one!
A further relevant factor is sensitivity which another researcher (Aron) found to be highly-correlated with introversion. These people ‘feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear’. In fact, the researcher herself, high on the sensitivity scale, noted that ‘she could drive alone for hours and never turn on the radio’, She described herself as ‘strangely intense’ and having ‘trouble finding the sacred in the everyday; it seemed to be there only when she withdrew from the world’. She discovered that those who score highly on the sensitivity spectrum seem to have ‘thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and TV shows’.
Again, this correlation captivates me. So many of Aron’s descriptors here resonated with me as I read them – things I have known about myself and always seen as unexplainable parts of my personality. I’d never understood why I might want the radio on in the car, why other people do. I’ve tried and failed multiple times to see the sacred in the beauty of nature, to my husband’s utter bewilderment; it does almost nothing to me whereas the inner world has always led me to better contemplation of the sacred. I’ve always struggled to watch the evening news without feeling destroyed by, and helpless at, the brokenness of life. I have never been able to watch violent films without replaying them in my head for days, even whilst I knew that everyone else had forgotten those scenes by the next day. And intensity – well, let’s just say that intensity or passion are probably among the first words that people think of when they get to know me! Yet now I wonder whether the high correlation between these characteristics and introversion would suggest that these are just to be expected rather than oddities of who I am. Maybe I’m not the weird quiet girl!
It’s time for me to stop now: we’re beyond 1200 words already which is longer than I usually post. I could go on with things I’ve learned from this book about why I am the way I am, how certain characteristics are strongly linked with introversion and why it is that my entire class thought I was an extrovert when we did the Myers-Briggs. I could, but I don’t think I’d do those ideas justice anyway. I’d rather you read the book. If you’re an introvert, you’ll find it hugely affirming: who you are is normal for an introvert even if those around you (the other 80% who are either extroverts or middle of the scale) think you’re the weird quiet one. And, extroverts, I know that reading books is not as fun for you as talking to people(!) but the introverts in your life might be very happy if you read this and learned more about who we are – we may be a quiet minority but there’s probably a few of us in your life!