The Psychology of Introversion

I was talking to a friend the other day. He was recently ditched by a date. She was going out with friends to have drinks, and wanted him to join them. He wasn’t comfortable going, and she didn’t take it the right way.

“You see, we haven’t even met once. I felt awkward to meet her friends on the first date,” he said. “And rather than making up some story, I told her the truth, that I’m not very comfortable among strangers.”

The girl thought, for obvious reasons, that my friend was too shy and called it off for good.

It’s true there are certain people who don’t do very well among others. We call them shy, awkward, pussy, uptight, introvert—and ridicule them. I am one of them. Similar incidents have happened with me as well.

Jerome Kagan, one of the great developmental psychologists of the twentieth century, calls them high-reactive. Kagan devoted his career to studying the emotional and cognitive development of children. In a series of groundbreaking longitudinal studies, he followed children from infancy through adolescence, documenting their physiologies and personalities along the way.

Kagan and his team exposed the 500 four-month-olds to a carefully chosen set of new experiences in 1989. The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, saw colourful mobiles dance before their eyes, and inhaled the scent of alcohol on cotton swabs. They had wildly varying reactions to the new stimuli.

About 20 percent cried lustily and pumped their arms and legs. Kagan called this group “high-reactive.” About 40 percent stayed quiet and placid, moving their arms or legs occasionally, but without all the dramatic limb-pumping. This group Kagan called “low-reactive.” The remaining 40 percent fell between these two extremes.

In a startlingly counterintuitive hypothesis, Kagan predicted that it was the infants in the high-reactive group—the lusty arm-pumpers—who were most likely to grow into quiet teenagers.

Introverts have high sensitivity to unnatural and new experiences. It’s innate and biological and can’t really be changed. And it’s a feature, not a bug.

Now, if you want to picture a person for a first date, a quiet, reserved introvert is probably not what first comes to mind. A gregarious and entertaining—verbally adept and witty personality is usually preferable. No wonder the advice for introverts who go on first dates, or business meetings, or investment pitches has long been some form of: Be more extroverted.

Business experts and psychologists are starting to see that guidance is wrong. It disregards the unique skills that introverts bring to the table—the ability to focus for long periods, a propensity for balanced and critical thinking, a knack for quietly empowering others—that may make them even better suited for entrepreneurial and business success than extroverts.

Indeed, numerous entrepreneurs and CEOs are either self-admitted introverts or have so many introvert qualities that they are widely thought to be introverts. These include Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett.

A lot of writers, politicians, athletes, artists and filmmakers are introverts too—J.K. Rowling, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Steven Spielberg, Jackson Pollock, Michael Jordan, Sachin Tendulkar, Barack Obama and many more.

The more scientifically accurate term for introverts is sensitive people.

Research says that sensitive people think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they’re so bored by small talk. If you’re thinking in more complicated ways then talking about the weather or where you went for the holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.

But contrary to popular belief, sensitive people may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings as well, but after a while wish they were home doing what they think is the real work.

They have an active social life too. Introverts prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions nonetheless.

Sensitive people do well among friends and in comfortable environments. But they don’t do so well among strangers. They fake it and eventually get very good at it. But they still remain introverts.

But unlike extroverts, sensitive people don’t have to fake being comfortable being alone. Being comfortable being alone—and thinking before acting—give introverts a leg up as they formulate a business plan or come up with new product design ideas.

Introverts not only have the stamina to spend long periods alone—they love it. Good entrepreneurs are able to give themselves the solitude they need to think creatively and originally—to create something where there once was nothing, and this is just how introverts are wired.

In the dating world, we tend to get drawn towards extroverts, like we are drawn towards entertainment. We want to be entertained without having to do anything. It is effective in the short term. We can get hooked for a short term through shock and awe. But it is not scalable. Ultimately, we need to talk and we need someone to listen. This is true in dating, relationship, and in normal life as a human being too.

Sensitive people are excellent listeners. They can make unexpected connections because they’re more focused on information input than output. And they’re often good at connecting dots. They take in information, process it and turn it around. They can sit with those dots long enough to see where the connection is, and that’s what makes them great conversationalists.

“Girls dig sensitive people when they get to know them,” I told my friend. “Because they are more sensible, and observant and understanding. They know girls better than others.”

Concluding this, it’s not that there’s no small talk in the ideal life of a sensitive person. It’s that it comes not at the beginning of conversations but at the end.

In most settings, people use small talk as a way of relaxing into a new relationship, and only once they’re comfortable do they connect more seriously. Sensitive people seem to do the reverse. They enjoy small talk only after they’ve gone deep. When sensitive people are in environments that nurture their authenticity, they laugh and chitchat just as much as anyone else.

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