What is introversion?

The last couple of weeks have taught me quite a bit about successful networking, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned. To that end, I had planned a 2-part series on networking for people who are shy/introverted.  However, during my research, I realized that–despite the apparent shared stigma toward them–shyness and introversion are actually very different things, and people may want to know the difference. So I will set up the series with a couple of posts describing these concepts.

In short, introversion indicates a lack of interest in most socialization, while shyness (also called social anxiety by the psych types) is characterized by a fear of social interaction. I have both.

Introversion after the cut.


Most experts seem to agree that introverts prefer avoiding social interaction, not out of fear, but because they simply would rather spend time alone, reflecting on the secrets of the universe–or the secrets of a good pie or their favorite TV series. The point is, they prefer to be thoughtful (regardless of the relative subject depth) over sociable.

Social interaction overstimulates introverts, leading to physical exhaustion. I’ve heard many introverts (myself included) say they needed to “rest and recharge” after social events. Conversely, extroverts describe themselves “feeling energized” afterward.

In fact, this overstimulation is a physiological response to social interaction. In her Psychology Today article “Field Guide to the Loner: The Real Insiders,” Elizabeth Svoboda describes how “previous MRI studies have shown that during social situations, specific areas in the brains of loners experience especially lively blood flow, indicating a sort of overstimulation, which explains why they find parties so wearying.” She further describes how the extra blood flow may be an evolutionary reaction to stress: It may increase both one’s reactions to new situations as well as provoke an empathetic or sensitive response.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Susan Cain (herself an introvert) illustrates how, despite its negative social image, introversion may truly be an evolutionary development intended to protect 15-20% of the species–the approximate percentage of introverts in humans and nonhuman animals. Where extroverts tend to rush into things and adapt more quickly to situations, introverts will stop and consider situations before reacting to them. In a lab test, introverted fish (yes, it sounds silly, but bear with me) were less likely to be caught in a food-baited trap, showing how being thoughtful is an advantage. However, the extroverted fish were more likely to survive when introduced into a new environment. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.

So contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy–nor is introversion a bad thing. And while there are shy introverts, there are just as many who are not shy. The latter are not afraid of social interaction; they just prefer it in limited quantities. Socializing for a short duration or with a very small groups is not nearly as taxing as having an all-night social gathering. However, the introvert–the comfortable loner–would just as soon be left alone to contemplate the meaning of life… or perhaps last season’s Idol winner.


5 thoughts on “What is introversion?

  1. I myself was a shy introvert during my formative years and can relate to the past stigma associated with the personality type.

    Loner, social outcast, and misanthrope were just a few the labels that others applied to me. As I look back to those times, those words were devastating to both hear and bear for a four-year-old boy who found solace reading and working on his coloring book rather than play Tag or Dodge Ball.

    In time I learned to overcome my shyness but felt that my introverted personality was considered unconventional and even abnormal in society. Feeling the need to step out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in a purely extroverted atmosphere, I enlisted in the Army. And let me just say that was the most harrowing experience of my life.

    It was mentally and emotionally draining, but I finally came to terms with my introverted self. So now a cup of coffee, my iPad loaded with books, and a quiet corner at home completes my day.

    Ah, the sound of silence.

    • I was always called a daydreamer and told to take my head out of the clouds. Not nearly as harsh, but arguably as damaging to a child in the long run. My shyness has always been so overwhelming that I never really noticed my introversion (but I clumped both under the term “introverted” until I learned the difference).

      I always thought I was okay in groups within my comfort zone (where my shyness doesn’t have control). However, I have always inexplicably fallen asleep among gatherings, and, oddly enough, the louder the gathering, the more quickly I fall asleep. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized this was caused by my introversion–the falling asleep was my “shutdown” in response to the over-stimulation. Unfortunately, everyone thinks I’m just doing it to be rude or that it’s because I’m bored.

      Other than that, my introversion is pretty mild; although I’d much rather read a book than go to a party in most cases. Thanks again for commenting!

  2. Pingback: Networking for the Socially Challenged, Part 2: Shy | Second City Odyssey

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