1. There’s no definition of “introvert” that psychologists agree on.
Carl Jung was one of the first to define introversion in psychology, saying that each person is either an “introvert” or an “extravert”. Extraverts (now also known popularly as extroverts) focus their energy outwards, he said, whereas introverts are thoughtful and focus inwards. In other words, Jung’s introvert was introspective.
But in the ’90s, the “Big 5” model of personality emerged. It rates people based on five traits, one of which is “extraversion”. Because Jung had already said introversion and extraversion were opposites, people started to define introversion as a low score on the Big 5’s extraversion scale.
The trouble is, the Big 5 focuses on observable traits. “Of course, introverts don’t emit a lot of observable behaviour sometimes, but they have a very rich inner life,” Professor Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College who’s spent years researching personality, tells BuzzFeed Science.
When the Big 5 model became popular, he says, “it was a good day for organising personality research, but it was a bad day for introversion”.
2. Non-psychologists may have their own definitions of “introvert”, too.
One 1981 paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology compared “common-sense” ideas about the term to “scientific” ones. One of the findings was that a lot of people believe introverts think often about themselves – they’re introspective, just like in Jung’s original definition. But that criterion doesn’t even appear on the Big 5 scale.
“The problem you have now is that people who define themselves as introspective introverts don’t necessarily score as introverts on the Big 5 extraversion scale,” says Cheek, “and so they’re being told ‘No, you’re not an introvert’.”
3. It is not the same as being shy.
“Some people still equate introvert and shy, and that’s just definitely, empirically not true,” says Cheek.
During his master’s thesis research, Cheek found that being shy, being sociable, and being introspective were all independent things. People could be shy but still have a great need for social interaction, or they could be introspective without being the least bit shy.
Shyness does overlap with one particular kind of introversion: anxious introversion. “A shy person may or may not be this kind of introspective, self-reflective, rich inner-life kind of person,” says Cheek. “However, they will have anxious thoughts.”
The key takeaway here is: If someone tells you they’re an introvert, don’t assume that means they’re shy.
4. In fact, there are different kinds of introversion.
Cheek and his colleagues came up with a model with four different meanings of introversion. It’s called STAR, which stands for Social, Thinking, Anxious, and Restrained.
If you want to find out which kind of introversion fits your personality most, take our quiz based on the STAR model. But first read on to find out about the four different meanings…
5. Social introverts genuinely prefer to hang out on their own or in smaller groups.
There’s no anxiety pushing social introverts to act the way they do, they just genuinely prefer it that way (and no amount of coaxing will change that).
You’ll often hear that introverts need to spend time on their own to “recharge” their energy levels, and social introverts are one group that fall into that category. “The idea that introverts need to alternate sociality and their recharging time, that’s very important in social introversion,” says Cheek.
6. Thinking introversion applies to people who are very self-reflective.
These people are generally introspective and thoughtful, and spend a lot of time inside their own heads, focusing their energy inwards. They have a “rich inner life”, as Cheek puts it. It’s basically Jung’s original definition of introversion.
These are the people who might not even score as introverts on a Big 5 personality test, because they don’t necessarily have the same aversion to social events that other introverts do (though some do).
7. Anxious introverts start to feel frazzled when they spend too long hanging out with other people.
This is the one meaning of introversion that does correlate with shyness, says Cheek. Anxious introverts feel self-conscious around strangers and get nervous in unfamiliar situations. After a while, they’ll need to retreat to the safety of their own company to recharge.
Unlike with social introversion, anxious introverts might still feel anxious when they’re alone. In fact, they’ll tend to ruminate over situations they’ve been in and worry about things that have (or might) go wrong.
But anxious introverts don’t always prefer to be recluses, and anxious introverts who have a high need for social interaction can have a tough time. “Some shy people are fairly high in need for affiliation,” says Cheek, “in fact they’re the people who have the most conflict with shyness.”
8. Restrained introverts take a little while to get going.
Do you struggle to get going in the morning and hate it when someone invites you to something last-minute? You might be a restrained introvert. Restrained introverts prefer to think before they speak and make plans rather than be spontaneous.
Cheek and his colleagues originally called this meaning “inhibited” introversion, but “reserved” is also a good word to use.
9. People can become less introverted as they get older.
Some people find that they naturally become less introverted over the years. This applies especially to anxious introverts who suffer from shyness.
“In the lifespan, shyness tends to peak at around age 13 or 14, and it tends to decline into the early thirties,” Cheek tells BuzzFeed. “After that it might stay more stable.”
10. If you want to, you can train yourself to act more outgoing when you need to.
In an ideal world, everyone would be able to stay within their comfort zone. But in our culture, sometimes you need to act in a way that doesn’t come naturally to you so you can reach a professional or personal goal.
Non-anxious introverts have a preference to act the way they do, but not an anxiety. “So if they want to act more outgoing, say at work, they can usually do that,” says Cheek. “They just have to make a choice.” He doesn’t recommend trying to change your entire life, but you can target certain domains.
For anxious introverts struggling with shyness, things are a little trickier. Before you can start improving your social skills, you have to tackle your underlying anxiety.
“What shy people need to do, in a nutshell, is to relax their bodies and modify their self talk,” says Cheek. “They need turn down their self-critical monologue, and pay more attention to other people – so they can then interact more with other people.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge undertaking that involves a therapist, says Cheek, and self-help cognitive behavioural therapy does work for some people. If you think you have an anxiety disorder, though, it’s best to speak to a doctor so they can help you figure out what works for you.
11. Introverts are not less happy than extraverts, despite what you might have read.
Google “extravert” and “happiness” and you’ll find a ton of articles claiming extraverts are happier than introverts. Cheek thinks it’s because of the way introversion and extraversion are defined in the research.
“Enthusiasm, exuberance, social liveliness are defined to be happy things,” says Cheek. “If you include social liveliness in your measure of extraversion, and then you include social liveliness in your measure of happiness, that’s a guaranteed finding.”
As introverts well know, they can be just as happy as extraverts can – they just might show it in a different way. “Research shows that introverts can have their own contentment and life satisfaction,” says Cheek. “There really are people who, when they say they prefer to stay home on a weekend night with a good book, they really are going to be more happy with that book than they would be if they went out to happy hour.”
Some people have a hard time believing this, because our culture supports the happiness of extraverts more than it does introverts. “Extraverts don’t understand,” says Cheek. “They feel like introverts would be extraverts if only they could, because extraversion is so much fun. Well, it’s fun for extraverts!”
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