The Quiet Ones

THEY LEAN AGAINST THE WALL AT THE PARTY—IF THEY GO TO THE PARTY at all—leaving some to wonder if they are arrogant or maybe just shy. Often misunderstood, introverts may seem unusual, but these quieter members of our species are not so rare. Introverts account for about half the U.S. population, and their distinctive personalities help maintain a delicate balance.

“For that party to work, where the introverts are against the wall, you need both introverts and extroverts,” says Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. “If you had only extroverts, it would be a loud mess.”

An introvert is not necessarily shy, nor is a shy person by definition introverted. When shy people avoid social interactions, it’s because they are afraid or lack the confidence to participate. “They want to be in the mix,” says Carducci. “They just don’t know how.” If an introvert, on the other hand, is leaning against the wall at a party, that’s exactly where she wants to be. “They prefer less noise and less arousal because their brain is different,” says Carducci.

Tests of electrical activity in the brain show that the introvert brain is more sensitive to noise and other stimulation than the extrovert brain. Introverts may also process more sensory information per second than extroverts. The high noise level in the brain and rapid sensory overload might explain introverts’ innate preference for smaller, more intimate social activities.

Introverts, by nature, don’t command attention, but they help maintain a crucial balance in society.

Extroverts tend to take more risks, while their quieter counterparts “step back, move a little more cautiously, and bring a more critical evaluation,” says Carducci. A society made up only of risk-takers or only of the risk-averse wouldn’t function as well as one that includes both. Consider, for example, the cost of auto insurance if every driver were a risk-taking extrovert.

Extroverts also gravitate toward social jobs, like sales and leadership, while introverts do the quiet, often solitary, work of artists and researchers. “You need the introvert to come up with the idea, and you need the extrovert to sell it,” says Carducci.