science of us

Introverted Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

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Thanks to the internet, the modern meaning of “introvert” has become convoluted and all-encompassing: by some accounts, an introvert is a self-involved misanthrope, a recluse, and possibly a vampire. Sometimes the description of an “introvert” also just sounds like a person. There is also a weird, defensive insistence that “introverted” does not mean shy, when that is literally its dictionary definition. There is more to it than that — psychologist Jonathan Cheek argues that there are four types of introversion — but the central principle of introversion is liking and/or needing to be alone where extroverts like to be around other people.

However, it seems we cannot even agree on that: a new study has found that introverts don’t seem to like solitude more than extroverts after all. Researchers asked hundreds of undergraduate students to spend 15 minutes alone per day for seven days in a row, and after each session, to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their experience being alone. During that time, students were directed to “sit alone, by themselves, without any device
or activity,” which may help explain the brevity of the time period — to be without one’s phone any longer might have proven unsustainable for the college-aged subjects. The researchers found, contrary to popular understanding, those students who identified as introverts didn’t report enjoying their solitude any more than those who identified as extroverts did — though the former did experience fewer negative thoughts.

Rather than “introversion,” the study’s authors found that it was actually a trait they call “dispositional autonomy” which made students more likely to report having enjoyed their alone time. Dispositional autonomy is a term borrowed from self-determination theory, a “framework for the study of human motivation and personality,” and was measured by students’ agreement with statements like “My decisions represent my most important values and feelings” and “I am deeply curious when I react with fear and anxiety,” and describes people with strong senses of self whose behavior, values, and interests are in agreement with one another. People with these traits can be introverted, but they can also be extroverted, the authors explain.

The authors also point out that the perception that introverts must always enjoy alone time likely does not apply to forced alone time, which I would have thought was obvious, but I am not the Ph.D. I would also be interested to see if these findings held true for solitary periods that lasted several hours rather than 15 minutes. But again, that is not my job.

In any case, it seems the way the internet describes introverts is probably oversimplified and too generalized as to be useful. It’s almost like we as humans have a very hard time accurately describing ourselves!

Introverted Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means