I’m an introvert, which means I crave quiet downtime. I don’t just crave it — I need it. If I spend too much time socializing — or am just “out and about” too much in noisy stores or coffee shops — I don’t feel like myself. I get mentally drained and even physically tired. I get cranky and short with my loved ones. Every little annoyance, like a crying baby in public, seems magnified. I fantasize about holing up in my apartment for a day or two to recharge my energy.
Recent research shows that it’s not just introverts who get drained by “people” time; extroverts get worn out by socializing, too. Nevertheless, there are some real differences between introverts and extroverts. On average, introverts really do prefer solitude more than extroverts, and extroverts are more driven to engage in social interactions that elevate their social attention and status (more about this later). So, scientifically speaking, why do introverts need more solitude than extroverts? The answer is found in the wiring of our brains.
Introverts Respond Differently to Rewards
As I explain in my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, the reason introverts enjoy alone time has to do with how they respond to rewards. Rewards are things like money, sex, social status, social affiliation, and even food. When you get promoted at work or convince an attractive stranger to give you his or her phone number, you’re gaining a reward.
Of course, introverts care about things like earning money, eating, and having relationships, too. But researchers hypothesize that introverts respond differently than extroverts to rewards. When compared to extroverts, introverts are less engaged, motivated, and energized by the possibilities for rewards around them. So, they talk less, are less driven, and experience less enthusiasm. In fact, they may find levels of stimulation that are rewarding and energizing for extroverts to be tiring or annoying.
What makes introverts less motivated by rewards? It was to do with a chemical found in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It enables us to notice rewards and take action to move toward them. It also reduces the “cost of effort,” meaning, it increases how much a person is willing to work for the possible reward.
When writing my book, I spoke with Colin DeYoung, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who recently published a paper on introversion. He told me that extroverts appear to have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts. This means that extroverts’ brains become more active at the sight of a possible reward, and dopamine energizes them to pursue it. Introverts’ brains just don’t get as active as extroverts’ at the expectation of a reward.
Why Introverts Enjoy Alone Time
Thinking about introversion in terms of rewards makes sense. Because introverts care less about obtaining rewards, we’re less motivated to do things that extroverts find immediately rewarding, such as socializing. DeYoung told me:
“Introverts are indeed often drained by socializing, but that’s partly because the effort required may not seem worth it because the rewards from socializing seem less to them. Extroverts get drained by socializing too, but they are more motivated to engage in it anyway, and it probably takes more socializing before they start to feel drained. Anything that involves expenditure of energy will be draining eventually.”
To fully understand what DeYoung is saying, imagine two friends — one an extrovert, the other an introvert — at a house party on a Saturday night. They’re crammed in a small room with thirty other people. Loud music blasts from huge speakers, and a few people are playing video games on a big screen TV. There are a dozen conversations going on at once, and a dozen things to pay attention to.
For the extrovert, this “level of stimulation” might be just right. He sees possibilities for reward everywhere — an attractive stranger across the room, potential new friends, and people who will give him the social attention he craves. He feels energized and excited to be at the party. So motivated, in fact, that he stays late into the night. He’s worn out the next day and needs some downtime to recover, but to him, the energy spent was well worth it.
The introvert, on the other hand, finds this environment tiring and punishing. It’s too loud, there are too many things to pay attention to, and all the people in the room create a dizzying buzz of activity. The introvert simply isn’t interested (to the same degree as the extrovert) in the possibility of social rewards around him. He leaves early and heads home, where he watches a movie with his roommate before going into his bedroom to read alone. In his own apartment, alone or with just one other person, the level of stimulation feels just right.
How Introverts Feel Rewarded
Introverts may not get high on shaking hands with strangers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel rewarded in other ways. I asked introverts to tell me what types of activities energize and reward them, and I shared their answers in my book. Here are just a few of their responses:
“A reward I enjoy is dinner alone. I even dress up nice. Or a bike ride around the city. Alleyways are my favorite because there are so many interesting things in alleyways, and they are quieter.” —Joe
“I like socializing with one or two people I like in a low-pressure environment.” —Marissa
“I always feel rewarded when I finish a good book. Being given a chance to peer into somebody else’s mind is a wondrous thing.” —Austin
“I love to go on a run where I can listen to my favorite tunes and observe my surroundings.” —Shanna
Are you an introvert, or do you have an introvert in your life? You can learn more about the science behind introversion — as well as how to work with your temperament rather than fight against it — in my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts.