What is an introvert?
There’s a lot of confusion about introverts out there in the world, which has caused many misconceptions and misunderstandings. With the Coronavirus pandemic going on and famous people “discovering” that they’re introverts, many of you might be wondering what an introvert is after all. Philosophers have a way to cut through confusion: we define our terms precisely. Socrates famously walked the streets of classical Athens asking people about the essence of virtue, piety, knowledge, and other concepts. He wasn’t satisfied with someone giving him examples of these qualities; he wanted the necessary and sufficient conditions to have them.
What are necessary and sufficient conditions? A necessary condition of something means a quality you must have, or else you can’t have that thing. So if you’re trying to define a sandwich, maybe a necessary condition is bread. There are a lot of different kinds of sandwiches, but all of them require bread of some kind. However, bread by itself isn’t enough to give you a sandwich. A sufficient condition, or set of jointly sufficient conditions, means the qualities that, when taken together, can completely and uniquely describe the thing you’re talking about. To go back to our sandwich example, a sandwich requires bread and some sort of filling in between. It could be meat, vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, or tomato sauce, but it needs to be something. (Note that not everyone would agree with this definition, since the sandwiching material may not have to be bread. Maybe the essence of a sandwich is something that sandwiches plus something that is sandwiched.)
Now let’s talk about introverts. I’ve come across a lot of stereotypes and assumptions about introverts in my research. In this post, like Socrates, we’re going to isolate the necessary and sufficient conditions of introversion from other traits that introverts are sometimes associated with. Hopefully this will help you realize how incorrect ideas about introverts affect us and how people see us in society. Here are eight of the most common misconceptions people have about introverts:
So what is introversion really? Carl Jung, the psychologist who first defined introversion and extraversion, called them mental attitudes. Each of us have minds that can direct themselves both outward and inward. Sometimes we engage with the physical world, sometimes we engage with our minds. People who are born with the inclination to engage more with the physical world than their own minds are extraverts, and introverts are the opposite. It’s like being right- or left-handed: we are naturally inclined toward using one or the other as our dominant hand, but we can still use the other one, just not as well. (Some people believe in ambidextrous “ambiverts,” but we’ll save that discussion for another time.)
Extraverts habitually turn their thoughts, interest, and mental energies toward objects of the physical world. This is the necessary and sufficient condition of extraversion. But a lot of tendencies come with this. Extraverts are more physically active, more influenced by the external world, and more drawn to external stimulation. They tend to adapt better in new physical circumstances and to interact with more stimulation more frequently. They also primarily value things in the physical world, such as exciting experiences, achievement, social status, and relationships.
Introverts habitually turn our thoughts, interest, and mental energies toward our own minds, the subjective conscious awareness that is having our experiences. This is the necessary and sufficient condition of introversion. Introverts are more active in our minds, more influenced by our own inner world, and more withdrawn from external stimulation. We tend to be less adaptable to changing physical circumstances, but can be as socially relaxed as extraverts when we are in a nonthreatening environment. We also primarily value things of the mind, such as self-understanding, meaning, principles, and a connection to a higher reality.
Recent research has added to Jung’s ideas. Researchers Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman have found that someone’s inborn psychological traits have a great impact on their future personalities. These traits are called someone’s temperament. A person’s temperament determines which chemicals in the brain are most frequently used to respond to situations. It determines whether the brain prefers to rest and digest or to seek rewards in the external environment. It also determines how sensitive we are to stimuli and how deeply we process them.
Introversion is a temperament. It is an inborn predisposition to reflect rather than act, to be drawn more to engaging with the mind than interacting with anything outside of it. We can say, then, that this inborn predisposition is the necessary and sufficient condition of introversion.
Starting life with this temperament has many implications for how someone develops. Most people are extraverts, and our societies are biased toward extraversion, so introverts often feel out of place and have trouble understanding ourselves. Being born an introvert often means developing a shy, reserved, bookish, thoughtful, socially avoidant, anxious, or independent personality. However, it doesn’t always mean this. Some introverts I’ve met are gregarious, loud, hate reading, are uninhibited, or don’t try to think very deeply about things. To identify the actual introvert, we need to talk about the necessary and sufficient condition: the introverted temperament.
Of course, what does it matter? Why do we need a firm definition of introversion? Can’t we just observe how self-identified introverts behave, tell companies and schools to treat people better that have these qualities, and hope for the best? Tell me in the comments what you think of this. Am I wasting my time presenting a precise definition of introversion, or is this important? If so, why?
Granneman, J. (N.d.). 21 funny tweets only true introverts will understand. Accessed 24 May 2020 from: introvertdear.com/news/funny-tweets-only-true-introverts-will-understand/
Granneman, J. (N.d.) Why introverts and extroverts are different: The science. Accessed 24 May 2020 from: https://www.quietrev.com/why-introverts-and-extroverts-are-different-the-science/
Kagan, J. & Snidman, N. (2009). The long shadow of temperament. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Amazon Link.
Laney, M. (2002). The introvert advantage: How quiet people can thrive in an extroverted world. New York: Workman Publishing Co. Amazon Link.
Wilmot, Michael P., Wanberg, Connie R., Kammeyer-Mueller, John D., Ones, Deniz S. (2019). Extraversion advantages at work: A quantitative review and synthesis of the meta-analytic evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(12), 1447–1470. Accessed 24 May 2020 from: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-28019-001
I’m Harrison Paul, the Introvert Philosopher. I hold an MA in Philosophy from San Francisco State University and wrote my thesis on using moral education in schools to resist the influence of advertising on politics. I am the author of five-book introvert epic fantasy series Kaybree versus the Angels. I am also actively seeking publication for my nonfiction book The Quiet Minority: Why Introverts are Oppressed and How We Can Stop It and the Aurora Lightwalker series of far-future YA introvert novels.