What is an Introvert

Correcting common misconceptions of an introvert, how they operate, and why it’s important for all types of people to understand them. NOTE: There is a difference between the dictionary definition of the word introvert and the psychological concept of an introvert. This essay covers the latter.

Human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all, for the most part, have the same body parts and the same abilities. We all walk on two legs, see with our eyes, and pick up things with our hands.

Look a little closer and you’ll notice that people have different color eyes, skin, and hair. We come in different shapes and sizes and have different levels of abilities. And if you look even deeper, on the interpersonal level, then you’ll notice that people are pretty heterogeneous.

Understanding someone’s personality can be a challenging task. Some people are more closed off than others, and some put up a facade to hide their true personalities for various reasons. But even getting to know someone who is an open book can still be tricky. As smart as humans have become, we still don’t have the ability to read minds. And so our judgments are heavily swayed by our many, many personal biases[1].

Ego-centric bias

Psychologist Tessa West outlines this phenomenon through her studies on human behavior and reading other people “[Ego-centric bias] is the idea that what goes on in our own minds is the richest source of information that we have. And we anchor what we think other people are thinking, feeling, and experiencing, based on our own experiences.” A common example of ego-centric bias would be assuming a stranger is in a bad mood or doesn’t like you because they have a mean look on their face when in reality, they’re just hungry or that’s just their resting face.

Another common bias that causes misattribution is stereotypes. “Stereotypes are one of the biggest sources of information we rely on when it comes to judging other people — especially when we don’t know them personally. This influences person perception and accuracy in particular because these expectations just serve as a lens in which we perceive and attend to all the information around us.”

But it’s not just the fault of the perceiver. In one study, Tessa found that we often give off inaccurate signals to each other, making it more likely that they will read us wrong. Ultimately, Tessa believes that the only way to accurately understand another person is to ask them specific questions. For more on her studies on personal biases and How to Really Know Another Person, check out her full podcast interview on Hidden Brain.

The main reason our personal biases distort our understanding of others is that we intuitively assume that everyone is the same as us. This essay is a reminder that human beings, on the social/interpersonal level, are extremely diverse. There is a large spectrum of neurodivergence that can make someone talkative or reserved, expressive or filtered, concentrated or diffused, emotional or impassive. It’s important for everyone to know this; But if you are a leader, it’s even more critical[2].

The two most common types of people you will meet in the workplace and in life are the introvert and the extrovert. Despite the two being the most common, I’ve found that they are also very misunderstood between the two, and even amongst themselves. Let’s explore the mind of an introvert, why they’re quiet, and where we’re wrong about them.

Introvert vs Extrovert

An introvert likes to internalize thoughts and feelings. This makes them think deeper and longer, even for trivial thoughts. While an extrovert gains energy from being with people, an introvert loses energy that way. Because of their framework, they find joy in solo activities and being alone.

Just because an introvert enjoys time alone does not mean they don’t enjoy time with people or socializing. Similarly, just because they gradually lose energy being with people doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy it either. If you’re an extrovert and are confused by that, think of it this way: when you wake up from a night’s sleep, you’re fully rested. Throughout the day you lose energy every waking hour regardless of what you’re doing. Just because you lose energy being awake doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy being awake.

These are all things that many people already know. But the misconceptions are what cause the skewed perceptions. Probably the biggest misconception is that introverts are shy and quiet. False. Shy extroverts exist, and talkative/obnoxious introverts exist.

In fact, you probably have a friend who is a shy extrovert or a talkative introvert and don’t even realize it. That friend you have who tires you out with constant jokes and stories, and then suddenly needs time alone. Or how about that shy friend who definitely isn’t the center of attention, but never turns down an opportunity to hang out with close friends.

Many people tend to use the words introvert and quiet/shy interchangeably, but this frankly isn’t accurate. Perhaps people get confused because an introvert, no matter how obnoxious and talkative, will always eventually drain their social battery and need some alone time to recharge.

Some of the most surprising examples, I’ve come to find, are that many YouTubers are self-proclaimed introverts. As loud and clamorous as people like KSI, Mr. Beast, and Jay Swingler are on camera, they still think, feel, and act like an introvert. And while that discovery initially shocked me, it now makes perfect sense; a YouTuber is essentially a sole proprietorship art and entertainment business. It often takes a lot of intrinsic motivation and thought (usually alone) behind the scenes to continually produce content.

Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of the Apple Computer, has been quoted saying that the reason he could become an expert and invent the first Apple computer was because he stayed at home while growing up. If Wozniak had felt the need to constantly be around people (extrovert), perhaps he would’ve never learned so much about computers and ultimately contribute largely to what Apple is today.

Clarifying this misconception debunks many of the other misconceptions about introverts, like for example, you need to be an extrovert to be a leader, salesman, public speaker, etc. Both types of people have their pros and cons in terms of socialization, critical thinking, motivations, rewards, and emotions, making them different but fundamentally equal.

Another insight into the mind of the introvert is in regards to how they think. As previously mentioned, an introvert likes to process and work things out mostly by themselves. This doesn’t mean they don’t like to receive input from others or think out loud at all, but for a lot of their thoughts and mental computation, they prefer to work it out alone. This is where introverts are actually “quiet”. In contrast, an extrovert may prefer to think out loud and externalize their thoughts and thought process. This is where they’re “social”.

Those two factors are the extent of the talkative vs quiet in regards to introverts and extroverts. But when comparing a loud, outgoing, obnoxious person vs a quiet, timid, reserved person, this is not a discernable comparison between an introvert vs an extrovert.

Personal Experience

I am certainly an introvert, both by definition and partially by stereotype. But how I think and feel may not be what most people expect.

I’m pretty quiet and reserved, and I don’t share a lot about myself unless we’ve spent a lot of time together, and I really like you. But I think that’s more of a choice; I wouldn’t call myself shy. I know what it feels like to be shy, and there are really only two situations that make me feel that way: public speaking, or approaching my crush for the first time.

Most don’t expect that I (ironically) really enjoy talking to large audiences, being the center of attention, and having deep conversations. But I also have a tiny social battery. There’s nothing I love more than having a good time with people I love. But after a while, I literally feel exhausted.

I was blessed with a true passion for business, sports, and learning, all of which can be done alone. If I wanted, I could easily and happily go a whole day by myself doing the things I love. But an ideal day for me would be doing the things I love with people I love — with a few opportunities throughout the day to just be quiet and not have any pressure to speak.

I have a few friends who are really good at occasionally allowing some quiet recuperation time, and because of that, I can spend all day with them without feeling worn out. How I act around those friends, you’d probably mistake me for an extrovert.

[1] On my list of the most valuable books I’ve ever read, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli explores the plethora of human personal biases, how it affects our thinking, and how to think clearly. I highly recommend it.

[2] Put briefly, a leader is someone who brings people together for a common cause. By definition, he or she must be good at meeting the needs of people to have a functioning society, in order to work towards the common goal. As we’ve already discussed, people vary greatly. So there is no one-size-fits-all approach for accommodating or nourishing an effective working environment. So the first step in trying to meet the needs of a diverse neurodivergent human population is to understand how they operate.

Whether you’re in introvert or an extrovert, if you’d like to learn more about the distinction between the two, I recommend the book Quiet by Susan Cain.