Extroverts vs Introverts

Isaac Newton

Prior to lockdown, I probably would have objected on some level to the introvert-extrovert dichotomy. After all, it seems greatly oversimplified, given the wide variety o personalities in the world.

But watching people react to lockdown has been very interesting, and I have concluded that some people really do lean toward intro- or extraversion.

The introverts have reported–aside from sensible worries about the virus–feeling better during lockdown. I’ve talked to a couple of people who reported feeling relieved that they didn’t have to go in to jobs they disliked, and others who found being inside for a week surprisingly pleasant.

Most of the people I’ve talked to, however, found quarantine immediately and intensely awful.

Note: This post is not about anyone suffering from real harm during lockdown, like inability to earn money they need to eat. This is only about the stress people feel when unable to get together with friends or generally go out among others.

I’ve now heard that depressives should not self-isolate about a dozen times. Being alone is bad, my friends tell me. I’ve always had my doubts about this. What is so bad about having a little time to myself, to browse the internet or read a book? Of course, I live with my family, so I barely get to be alone in the bathroom–maybe we all want what we don’t have. But at least within the level of quarantine we have, not having left the house in weeks, we have been fine.

I think the difference, at least for some people, stems from the origin of our own source of happiness and self-worth. If you get most of those emotions from within, or from hobbies that you can easily carry on at home (like reading or growing bonsais,) then being cut off from other people can be frustrating, but you’ll be okay. By contrast, if you really don’t produce those emotions for yourself (perhaps due to some glitch you can’t,) then you are more likely to seek them out in others. If your access to other people is suddenly cut off, then you’re in quite the bind: you can no longer access positive feelings.

Most of the time, extroverts seem happy and introverts seem like depressives, and that may be true for many of them (notably, depressed extroverts may fail to go out, making them look like introverts). But I propose a sub-type of extroverts who find time alone intolerable because they are really quite unhappy inside. By contrast, introverts may not share the effusive, bubbly style of extroverts, but that does not mean they are not feeling positive emotions–they just do not feel the need to convey those emotions to others. (And as far as depressed introverts, well, I don’t know if going around more people would make the situation better or worse.)

It is tempting to criticize people for being unable to generate their own positive feelings, but remember that man is a political–ie, social–animal. Our natural state is to live in bands and troops, same as our cousins the chimps, bonobos, and gorillas. We are supposed to want to be around each other, and it is normal for us to feel great distress if we are alone, which is why solitary confinement is so bad:

Solitary confinement has received severe criticism for having detrimental psychological effects[4] and, to some and in some cases, constituting torture.[5] According to a 2017 review study, “a robust scientific literature has established the negative psychological effects of solitary confinement”, leading to “an emerging consensus among correctional as well as professional, mental health, legal, and human rights organizations to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement.”[6]

Research surrounding the possible psychological and physiological effects of solitary confinement dates back to the 1830s. When the new prison discipline of separate confinement was introduced at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829, commentators attributed the high rates of mental breakdown to the system of isolating prisoners in their cells. … Prison records from the Denmark institute in 1870 to 1920 indicate that staff noticed inmates were exhibiting signs of mental illnesses while in isolation, revealing that the persistent problem has been around for decades.[8]

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, solitary confinement can cause an array of mental disorders, as well as provoke an already existing mental disorder in a prisoner, causing more trauma and symptoms. …

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch created a report that incorporated the testimony of some juvenile inmates. Many interviews described how their placement in solitary confinement exacerbated the stresses of being in jail or prison. Many spoke of harming themselves with staples, razors, even plastic eating utensils, having hallucinations, losing touch with reality, and having thoughts of or attempting suicide – all this while having very limited access to health care.[10]:29–35 …

As well as severe and damaging psychological effects, solitary confinement manifests physiologically as well. Solitary confinement has been reported to cause hypertensionheadaches and migraines, profuse sweating, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Many inmates also experience extreme weight loss due to digestion complications and abdominal pain. Many of these symptoms are due to the intense anxiety and sensory deprivation. Inmates can also experience neck and back pain and muscle stiffness due to long periods of little to no physical activity. These symptoms often worsen with repeated visit to solitary confinement.[11]

Keep in mind that the alternative to solitary is being around a bunch of criminals, people not generally thought to be terribly pleasant companions.

Of course, some people prefer to be alone. Some people prefer to be with others. If you’re having a rough time in quarantine, well, at least you’re not alone (metaphorically, at least).

Stay safe, stay healthy, and see if you can invent some new math while you’re stuck inside.


“Shy People are Narcissists”

I recently saw a quote attributed to Freud to the effect that shy people are narcissists. This is undoubtedly true, in many if not most cases. I say this from the inside, as an obviously shy person. I–perhaps we–am extremely focused on my internal emotional state and the high amounts of distress socializing generally causes, either by its presence or lack.

(I feel duty-bound to interject that this is not necessarily the shy person’s fault–experiments have found, for example, that introverts have stronger unconscious reactions to noxious stimuli, eg, salivating more in response to lemon juice than extroverts do.)

After a social interaction, the shy person will generally dissect all of their faults and failings, feel anxious about any friction in the situation, and often feel hopeless and incompetent.

The obvious advice to introverts is to stop being neurotically self-absorbed and realize that other people do not hyper-analyze and criticize them nearly as much as they think other people do.

That advice, though, rests on a critical assumption: that the introvert is wrong. As I see it, there are actually two possible scenarios:

1. The shy person is wrong, and other people actually like them fine. The setbacks they experience are totally normal setbacks that everyone endures. Successful people recover from setbacks, get back on that horse, and keep going until they have lots of friends.

2. The shy person is correct, and has become intensely self-critical after years of social failures indicating that they are clearly doing something wrong.

2.a. The thing the shy person is doing wrong is being neurotic and self-absorbed instead of gregarious and other-focused in conversation. In this case, the Obvious Advice, while based on a slightly wrong assumption, is still functionally good advice, as it tells the shy person to stop the bad behavior.

2.b. Alternatively, the shy person may just have some different set of conversation styles or cultural norms or interests or aggression levels or whathaveyou than the other people around them, meaning that interactions generally don’t go very well, are stressful, and the shy person and the other person actually don’t like each other for reason other than the shy person being shy. In this case, simply acting more extrovertedly won’t solve the problem–it will probably just make the shy person an annoyance to those around them.