Introverts Can Grow, But They Can’t Become Extroverts, According to Research
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a gym floor near a brightly-colored parachute, surrounded by other small children. My mom tells me that this is preschool. In that moment, the other kids are squealing with delight as the parachute bubbles up and down.
But me? I’m paralyzed. Not with fear, but with something else — overstimulation. The whole place is too loud, too frenetic. An adult encourages me to pick up a parachute handle, but I just stare, wide-eyed. It’s too much to process, too fast.
Neither my parents nor I knew it then, but it turns out I’m an introvert.
As I grew older, I showed all the early signs of introversion. I was sensitive to my environment. I often withdrew from my family, for hours on end, into the solitude of my bedroom. I easily lost myself playing alone, and although I had a small group of friends who I loved dearly, I became drained just by being around them — so much so that I wondered what was wrong with me.
Together, those signs are pretty much the textbook definition of an introvert. And nearly 30 years later, not much has changed.
If you’re like me, you may wonder why you’re an introvert. Were you born that way, or did something happen early in your life that made you one? And will you ever not be an introvert?
Recent research has some answers for us. Let’s take a look.
Introversion Is in Your Genes
In 2004, Harvard psychologists Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman had a question:
Do shy, cautious babies grow up to be shy, cautious adults?
They set out to get an answer.
In one study, they presented babies with unfamiliar stimuli and documented their reactions. Some babies cried and thrashed their arms and legs, meaning, they were highly reactive to their environment. Others soaked up new stimuli with ease.
Kagan and Snidman returned to these individuals when they were older. What they found was that the babies who were “highly reactive” grew up to be more cautious and fearful. The “low reactive” babies remained sociable and daring as adults.
In other words, there was a direct relation between a baby’s response to stimulus and their behavior as adults.
According to Kagan and Snidman, this shows us that temperament — introversion and extroversion — is the result of our genetics. It’s likely rooted in the structure of our brains.
Extroversion Is Genetically Linked to Dopamine
Another study found that extroversion is linked to the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine, and that some people have a gene that makes them more responsive to it.
How did they prove it? With gambling.
In 2005, researchers Michael Cohen and his colleagues sought out both introverted and extroverted volunteers to spend some time playing games of chance — inside a brain scanner. And when they won a gamble, the two groups showed markedly different reactions.
Both groups got a jolt of brain activity from a win. But the extroverts had a much stronger reaction in two areas of the brain: the amygdala, which processes emotional stimuli, and the nucleus accumbens, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry and dopamine system.
In other words, introverts and extroverts both liked winning, but introverts got less of a thrill out of it.
They also took a DNA swab and looked at the genetic profiles of the volunteers. The participants who showed more brain activity from winning also had a gene that increases responsiveness to dopamine.
Their results confirm that introverts and extroverts process rewards in a surprisingly different way. It also contributes to the growing body of evidence that introversion is part of your DNA and is wired into you from birth.
Can an Introvert Become an Extrovert?
We can’t change our DNA (at least not yet). If you’re an introvert, you’re likely going to be one for your whole life. You’ll probably always enjoy spending time alone and get more easily drained by socializing than extroverts. You can teach yourself to have better social skills — and manage your energy — but you’ll probably never transform into a bona fide extrovert. Similarly, extroverts can learn the joys of solitude and slowing down, but they’ll probably never change into true introverts.
And that’s okay, because there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert.
It’s important that our society recognizes that introverts can’t be changed or “fixed,” and we don’t need to be. We need to stop seeing introverts as failed extroverts, and start embracing the incredible strengths that introverts have to offer.
It also means that the path to growth for introverts lies in learning to work with our quiet nature rather than fighting against it.
Our Personalities Change, Not Our Temperaments
People often say things to me like, “I was an extrovert until I was bullied in middle school. The trauma turned me into an introvert.” Or, “I used to be an introvert until I learned how to put myself out there and make friends.”
What these people are saying is not exactly accurate. You can’t turn from an introvert to an extrovert, and vice versa. But these people are referring to something very real that we’ve all experienced — growing and changing as people.
Though we can’t change our temperament, we can change our personalities.
In my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, I explain that there’s a big difference between temperament and personality. Our temperament — introversion or extroversion — is our nature, and it permanently affects our behavior. Our personality, on the other hand, is built over a lifetime, and is a collection of characteristics that make us unique.
Similarly, Kagan and Snidman found that not all the “highly reactive” babies in their study grew up the same. When the timid babies had parents who were very protective, it actually made them more cautious and inhibited as they grew up. On the other hand, when the parents encouraged boldness and sociability, babies who were just as timid to start with grew up to be much less fearful.
This shows that how we treat introverts — especially when they’re young — matters in a big way.
Introverts will never stop being introverts. Extroverts will never stop being extroverts. Rather than boxing ourselves in, let’s use this knowledge to understand and appreciate one another better. And let’s make sure that young introverts get what they need to thrive.
You might like:
- Why Are Words So Hard for Introverts? Here’s the Science
- Why Do Introverts Love Being Alone? Here’s the Science
- 13 ‘Rules’ for Being Friends With an Introvert
- 25 Illustrations That Perfectly Capture the Joy of Living Alone as an Introvert
- 17 Signs That You Have an Introvert Hangover
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