The Science of Introversion. Pt.1

The science of introversion and extroversion has always fascinated me. Why are certain people entirely capable of public speaking and acts of confident socialising whilst others are not? Is it a result of our cerebral conditioning? Is it linked to the theory of nature vs. nurture in our childhoods? Both of my parents are loud, outspoken types, so why the difference in our genetic make-up? How can our personalities be so vastly dissimilar?

A group of scientists at Harvard have dedicated themselves to investigating how the framework for our personalities is developed from birth. Jerome Kagan, an eighty-year old developmental psychologist, has devoted his career to analysing the emotional and cognitive development of children. In one particular study, he followed children from infancy through to adolescence, and documented their physiologies and personalities along the way. In 1989, Kagan and his team gathered five hundred four-month-old infants, and predicted that they would be able to tell who would become an introvert or extrovert based on a forty-five minute survey. This may seem like an audacious claim, but the results were astounding.

Kagan exposed the infant to a carefully chosen set of new experiences. The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, and were surrounded by colourful mobile devices. They had incredibly varying reactions to the new stimuli. Approx. 20% cried loudly and pumped their arms and legs wildly. This group was named, ‘the high reactive.’ Around 40% of the infants remained quiet and placid, and only pumped their arms and legs occasionally. This group was named, ‘the low reactive.’ The remaining 40% fell between these two extremes. In an incredibly shocking prediction, Kagan predicted that ‘the high reactive’ group would grow into quiet teenagers. He was correct too.

When the infants were two, four, seven and eleven years old, the children returned to Kagan’s lab for follow-up testing. At the age of two, the children were exposed to a lady wearing a gas mask and a lab coat, a man dressed as a clown, and a radio controlled robot. At seven, they were encouraged to play with children that they had not previously met. At eleven, an unfamiliar adult interviewed them about their personal lives. Kagan’s team studied how these children reacted to these strange scenarios. They noted their body language, and recorded how often they laughed, talked and smiled. He also measured their heart rates, finger temperatures, blood pressure, and other properties linked to the central nervous system.

Many of the children turned out exactly as Kagan had predicted.  The high reactive infants developed serious and careful personalities. The low reactive infants were more likely to become relaxed and confident types. Kagan’s study is not without flaw, and some may question the ethics behind such studies, but it is clear that stimuli presented during infancy can predict a later personality type, or create it entirely. It is an interesting case for debate, and one that provides a potential insight into how our personality types are developed.  I’ve always been a firm believer that our childhood experiences provide the foundations for our lives in adulthood, and this study conveys that it definitely has psychological consequences.

Social Flexibility: When Should You Act More Extroverted Than You Really Are?

People have a variety of social selves that they choose to project to the world. I have encountered many extroverted people who are secretly introverts. They project a booming and energetic sense of self in certain social situations, but they retreat in private and seek more solitary pursuits. People often describe me as ‘extroverted,’ but they couldn’t be further from the truth. I might appear confident in public, and be able to talk to anyone at all, but it has always been a secret struggle of mine. I prefer one-on-one conversations and encounters, and I often disappear to share quiet dialogues at parties. When I’m forced to spend too much out in public, or at social events, I can literally feel myself becoming unwell, and I need days alone to recharge my batteries. Outwardly however, people assume that I love socialising and am never nervous of people. The truth couldn’t be any more different.

It is my belief that we are very capable of flexibility when it comes to our extroverted and introverted sides. Our projected selves shift depending on the social situation, and it could be argued that we are all a mix of both extrovert and introvert. There are a group of psychologists known as Situationists, and they believe that the words we use to describe one another – shy, aggressive, agreeable, conscientious – are incredibly misleading. They state that there is no ‘core’ self; there are only various selves. This idea was introduced by a man called Walter Mischel, who believed that situational factors predicted the behaviour of people. For example, a normally introverted lecturer could become extroverted when faced with a large auditorium of people. As a species, we must be flexible with our social selves. I would describe myself as flexible socially, because I can be both the life and soul of the party, but also desire to remain indoors in isolated locations and devote myself to the silent and solitary pursuit of writing.  I also understand that being the confident talker means that I am exhausted afterwards, and need time to recharge before I’m able to socialise again. It is simply the way that I am.

Why can we turn certain personality traits on? How can an introvert behave as an extrovert at certain times, and not others? There is a theory amongst psychologists called the Free Trait Theory. These people believe that fixed traits and free traits almost certainly coexist. According to this theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits, but we can and do act out of character for situations such as work, or in the pursuit of something that we particularly enjoy. For example, an introverted athlete may display extreme aggression and passion when pursuing their sport. They have adapted their personality traits to achieve something that means a lot to them. This might seem slightly deceptive, but we are simply doing what we have been psychologically programed to do. Yes, we may pretend to be extroverts at times, and such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous, but if it’s in pursuit of something that we love? Or something we are working towards? Social flexibility can indeed be the answer.

Is ‘clique’ behaviour an evolutionary weakness?

Most of us have experienced some form of social ‘clique’ in our lifetime. These groups consist of people who share similar interests and bond over them, such as the football team at school, the cheerleaders at college, or the ‘ladies-who-lunch-together’ in the office. They can be quite intimidating and cruel towards outsiders too. Despite the emotional effect such groups can have on individuals, there has been very little study into the science behind them. This blog entry will seek to investigate the science behind the ‘clique’ mentality, and introduce the idea that this behaviour is actually an evolutionary weakness.

The science of clique behaviour is fascinating to consider. Since the beginning of time, human beings have felt a natural affinity towards each other, and have clubbed together in order to survive. Groups of hunters were far more adept at finding food than lone huntsman, and groups of warriors were more able to protect their families from harm. Groups of people would travel together, and fight against outsider groups who may seek to steal provisions from them. Outsiders were a real threat, and therefore the targets for violence. This theory may seem difficult to apply to modern day situations, but it isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think. Sociologists argue that people form cliques because they need to feel a sense of belonging in order to survive in a world ruled by social interactions. Many academics argue that this need is equally as crucial as food and shelter, and stems back to our ancestors who survived in clans, or in a herd mentality. Lone outsiders were unlikely to survive in the wilderness, and are still viewed with suspicion and dislike in the modern day.  If a person doesn’t gravitate towards a certain group, or ‘clique,’ then they become a target for gossip, hearsay and bullying.

Being an outsider is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve never felt a sense of belonging to any particular social group, and that’s always been a difficult burden to bear. I never engaged in office politics, because I had no idea how to, and I was bullied continuously at school. I didn’t fit the ‘mould’ of other workers or pupils either, so was often left out when people went for ‘drinks’ after work or sleepovers at the weekend. This can leave a person feeling humiliated, and it absolutely crushes self-esteem. However, I have started to see that being an outsider is actually an advantage. Outsiders are more capable of being objective, and less social commitments result is far less stress. I am quite glad that I don’t feel obligated to go out with a certain group of people on a weekend, or have to deal with the stresses of trying to belong. I pride myself on being an outsider, and I would urge other people to do the same. Cliques are an outdated method of survival, and there is far more power and pride to be had in being an independent and lone entity in this day and age.

The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum

Our lives and experiences are vastly shaped by our personality types. The introvert-extrovert spectrum has been widely recognised as the two polar opposites of the human personality, and is often used as a defining feature when describing people in particular situations. In my experience, the loudly spoken and buoyant personality will always gain certain opportunities that the quiet, cerebral type does not. A shy and quiet child is often viewed as an enigma to teachers, and therefore is more easily overlooked and targeted for a lack of contribution in school reports. The loud and boisterous child holds the room’s attention, and is often more liked by his or her class. The latter grows in popularity, and the former easily blends into the background. Why is this? Why is introversion viewed as a second class personality that cannot be valued in our society?

The answer is simple. Scientific studies have revealed that talkative people are viewed as smarter, more attractive and conforming to a universal standard of psychological expectation. Fast talkers are considered more competent and likeable, and yet there is no correlation between speech velocity and intellect. As adults, we are expected to work in offices without walls, and to be at the beck and call of bosses who value ‘people skills’ above everything else, but I have never been wired that way. It is more difficult for an introvert to promote themselves in modern society, and they need to work harder for recognition, because quietness does not sell. It does not turn heads. Introverts however, have strong social skills, but they devote their energies to reflection rather than voice velocity and attention grabbing. They listen more than they talk. They think before they speak, and they feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing rather than conversation. The word ‘introvert’ is not a synonym for social recluse, or hermit, but rather for a person that avoids the overstimulating and chaotic, and finds comfortable expression in more understated mediums.

Introverts may feel alone in their approach, but they are far from it. In 1955, Rosa Parks stood up for what she believed in when approached with racist segregation laws, and stood firm against confrontation. It would be very easy to assume that she was a bold and outspoken woman, but she was not. When she died in 2005, her obituaries praised her for being ‘timid’ and ‘shy,’ but with the ‘courage of a lion.’ Some of mankind’s greatest achievements and ideas have come from introverts. Van Gogh and T.S. Eliot were famously private souls, and Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were known to be great thinkers who achieved great productivity in solitude. Einstein himself described himself as a ‘horse built for a single harness,’ and Charles Darwin famously stated that a man could be shy but ‘as bold as a hero in battle.’ Introversion is not a curse; it is a powerful personality type that is simply misunderstood in present society.