Introverts: non-social people who live quietly among us

Agnes Constante

When Karl Marx said that humans are intrinsically social beings, he forgot to factor in the roughly 50 percent of the United States population that posses introverted characteristics.

The Myers and Briggs Foundation, which is widely known for its personality type indicator test, estimates that approximately half of the American population consists of people who don’t feel the need to be constantly interacting with other people. Introverts, as these type of people can be identified, draw energy from their inner thoughts and ideas, and, therefore, may simply tend to prefer to be in less social situations.

Although introverts comprise a significant percentage of the population, they remain misunderstood and wrongfully judged.

“The United States really seems to be geared toward [being] extroverted,” says Jessica Gillooly, a psychology professor at Glendale College.

She has taught at Glendale for nearly 30 years, holds a doctorate degree in psychology and has a private practice for marriage and family therapy. But when it comes to this particular subject in psychology, it’s a challenge to dig up any substantial information.

Leafing repeatedly through multiple psychology textbooks, Gillooly encounters a bit of a roadblock in trying to find information about this personality type. In some textbooks, the term “introvert” is nowhere to be found, even in the index.

After flipping through even more pages of text, she finally breaks through, though her findings are limited to two pages that barely touch on the subject.

“Even in the textbook there’s more written material in the textbook given towards [extroverts], not so much for [introverts],” she says, intrigued with how little she is able to find about this topic in her books.

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is credited for introducing the concepts of extroversion and introversion. He believed that personalities fell on a continuum between these two contrasting types.

Extroverts, unlike introverts, tend to be more gregarious and outgoing. They are stimulated and energized by being around people and engaging socially with others.

As a result of the emphasis of extroversion in western society, introverts are often misunderstood in a negative light.

“Introverted individuals can be seen as being shy, or timid, or aloof or stuck up, acting kind of better than anyone else, when in reality that’s really not what’s going on,” says Gillooly. “They may be feeling uncomfortable [in a situation]. They may be trying to gauge the situation, figure out what’s going on, and don’t just have the same push or the same need to talk. So they’re fine with silences.”

Glendale College student Jennifer Halliday considers herself an introvert and says that she is “always” misunderstood due to her introverted characteristics.

“Throughout high school everybody was like, ‘wow I really thought you were kind of a snob’,” she says. “But really, I was just shy and I didn’t talk.”

While some introverts may well be timid or shy in certain circumstances, Gillooly says that this is not always the case.

“It’s not true to say that someone who has a more introverted personality is always going to be quiet, not talk as much, keep their distance from other people, act shy,” she says. Unlike shy or timid people who fear being in social situations, introverts can choose to act introverted.

“[Introverts are] going to act like that in situations where they’re not so comfortable, where they’re not sure what’s expected of them, and where they’re getting their bearings,” Gillooly says.

Gayane Hagopian, a 20-year-old biology major at Glendale, agrees with Gillooly, that, “To a certain extent when [introverts are] placed in a situation that’s uncomfortable, we tend to try to get away from it.” However, she added that she is far from being introverted in certain situations, and that, “If [I] know the people, I’m more comfortable. I’m more myself.”

Greg Sokolsky, a 34-year-old art major at Glendale College who also considers himself an introvert, agrees that introverted characteristics will manifest depending on the present circumstances.

“I think a main point is what role I am in [a given] situation,” he says. “If I’m someone’s boss . I’m on top of it. But if I don’t have a role in terms of power in a situation, then I’ll probably be a lot more quiet unless it’s something that I really believe in.”

The fact that introverts draw energy from within themselves instead of others is a contributing factor to the negative light in which they tend to be portrayed.

“If I come and say, ‘Hi,’ the expectation is you’re going to say ‘Hi, how are you?’,” says Gillooly. “And the deal is that I’m going to try to engage you and you’re going to try to engage me in a conversation. Well, if you’re an introvert you may only want a little bit of a conversation and then you want to be left alone.”

Just like running laps around a track can cause physical fatigue, and just like continuous thinking can be mentally draining, prolonged socializing can, likewise, deplete the energy levels of introverts. And just as sleep and mental rest can refresh the body and mind, withdrawing from social interaction helps revitalize introverts’ ability to interact with people.

“I definitely do [get tired of being in social situations],” says Sokolsky, especially, “If [the situation is] not stimulating or it’s something that I don’t think is interesting.”

In the two pages Gillooly managed to find in one of her psychology textbooks, Eysenck’s Reticular Activation System Theory is discussed briefly. Hans Eysenck, a British psychologist, used the reticular activation system (RAS) to explain extroversion and introversion. He proposed that all people share an optimal level of arousal, a comfortable level at which people are engaged in the world. He further suggested that the difference between extroverts and introverts in regard to this optimal level, is that extroverts wake up below the optimal level, while introverts start their days above the level.

If one were below the optimal level, as Eysenck suggested extroverts are in the mornings, the person would try to reach that level, perhaps by engaging in social activity.

Chris Kidder, a 31-year-old business major at Glendale, realized he starts his days off below the optimal level.

“In the morning I do spend an hour trying to build myself up,” he says. “I am on the phone a lot in the morning.”

He considers himself an extrovert.

Conversely, Eysenck proposed that introverts begin their days above the optimal level of arousal, and proceed through their days trying to tone things down to get to the optimal level.

“I’m not a morning person,” says Hagopian, who admits that she sometimes has to be yanked out of bed by her mom before she starts her days.

“When I wake up, I don’t want anyone around,” says Halliday. “I don’t want anybody to talk to me. I want to be by myself, take a shower, have coffee.”

With the large proportion of extroverted personalities in America, introverts are left to find ways to deal with the expectations of the largely socially engaged society.

“It can be [difficult to cope in an extroverted society],” says Halliday. She shares that when she finds herself at parties or other social gatherings, she is hardly ever the person to start a conversation. “In social settings, I don’t talk, I don’t engage people. I’m not ‘practiced’ in that area,” she says jokingly, though she is serious about what she says; when she works out at the gym, “I don’t go with people . I listen to my head phones and I don’t really look up at people very much.”

However, being surrounded by social people does help introverts in dealing with their personality tendencies. Gillooly believes that “introverts are accustomed to the extroverted personality.”

“I would rather be by myself, but if I’m in a [social] situation that I can’t get out of, I can adapt,” says Halliday.

At the end of the day, introverts remain inevitably subject to being misunderstood.

“I was voted the quietest [in high school],” Hagopian says, “but around friends and family, I’m the loudest. [People] would always say, ‘Oh, she’s the shyest, she’s the quietest,’ but I really wasn’t. I was just that way in class.”

“Other introverts don’t judge other introverts as being aloof or stuck up. But extroverts do,” says Gillooly.

What it comes down to, is that introverts have the capacity to choose when to act reserved or when to be more social, so it isn’t necessarily easy to distinguish where one falls on the personality spectrum proposed by Jung.

Kidder, who is good friends with Halliday, is shocked to learn that Halliday is an introvert. She enjoys dancing in clubs with a lot of people, and actively participates in class discussions. These factors make it somewhat puzzling as to how Halliday could be an introvert.

But she explains that when the opportunity to dance presents itself, she isn’t comfortable dancing with strangers and prefers to dance alone. And as for asking and answering questions in class, she chooses to speak in that particular situation.

“I’m always very engaging in class and I’m . one to talk to the teacher and raise my hand and get into a discussion because I have confidence and I’m comfortable in this particular environment,” she says.
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One of the easiest ways to determine whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert is to ask yourself, “What do I do to reenergize?” Those who prefer to engage in solitary activities are more likely to be introverted, while those who prefer to be around others and socialize are probably extroverted.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

1. After being with a large group of people, I need some time to myself.
a. True
b. False

2. I get bored when I’m by myself.
a. True
b. False

3. I tend to overanalyze my decisions.
a. True
b. False

4. I believe that I’m better off not trusting anyone.
a. True
b. False

5. I feel suffocated if I’m around people all the time.
a. True
b. False

6. It takes me a lot of time to feel comfortable opening up to other people.
a. True
b. False

8. Going to large social gatherings exhausts me.
a. True
b. False

10. When I have free time I:
a. Prefer to be alone
b. Prefer to engage in activities involving other people

11. I usually prefer to:
a. Work alone
b. Work in a team

12. I tend to:
a. Think before I act or speak
b. Think out loud

13. I tend to be reserved when dealing with people I don’t know very well.
a. True
b. False

14. After being with a large group of people, I need some time to myself.
a. True
b. False

15. I get really uncomfortable when the spotlight is on me.
a. True
b. False

If you answered mostly As, you are probably an introvert. If you answered mostly Bs, you are probably an extrovert.

Questions courtesy of Psychology Today. A quiz with more detailed results can be taken online at www.psychologytoday.com.