People are evenly split between introverts and extroverts and yet for various reasons, some societies marginalize either personality type. Psychologists tell us how those personality types differ, but I think we inevitably interpret those findings from our philosophical and religious perspectives. After laying out the psychological distinction, based on psychologist Laurie Helgoe’s article, Revenge of the Introvert, I delve into some philosophical and religious interpretations.
Introverts vs Extroverts
In Revenge of the Introvert, Helgoe explains the psychological differences between introverts and extroverts, and speaks to the conflicts that can arise between someone of either personality type and her society, depending on whether that society is friendlier to one type or the other. Part of her introduction summarizes her article, which I’ll quote here:
“Although there is no precise dividing line, there are plenty of introverts around. It's just that perceptual biases lead us all to overestimate the number of extraverts among us (they are noisier and hog the spotlight). Often confused with shyness, introversion does not imply social reticence or discomfort. Rather than being averse to social engagement, introverts become overwhelmed by too much of it, which explains why the introvert is ready to leave a party after an hour and the extravert gains steam as the night goes on.
“Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.
“As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal--they'd rather find meaning than bliss--making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge--not to feel like misfits in their own culture.”
So introversion isn’t the same as shyness. The shy person wants more social interaction but lacks the knowhow, whereas the introvert isn’t even interested in that interaction. As Helgoe’s headline says, “introverts would rather be entertained by what’s going on in their heads than by seeking happiness.” Introverts prefer thinking to action. Science shows that the introvert cognitively processes more of what she perceives than does the extrovert, and so the introvert needs time and silence to think about that deeper experience. The introvert has “a preference for solitude, reflection, internal exploration of ideas vs. active engagement and pursuit of rewards in the external/social world.” Scientists theorize “that given their higher level of brain activity and reactivity, introverts limit input from the environment in order to maintain an optimal level of arousal. Extraverts, on the other hand, seek out external stimulation to get their brain juices flowing.” The extrovert doesn’t analyze her thoughts as much as the introvert, and so is stimulated more by what’s going on in her environment; in fact, the extrovert has larger “brain structures responsible for sensitivity to rewards,” and so seeks out external stimulation to satisfy her need for social validation. By contrast, “Introverts are collectors of thoughts, and solitude is where the collection is curated and rearranged to make sense of the present and future.”
Helgoe points to some interesting negative consequences of introversion. First, “extensive internal dialogue, especially in response to negative experiences, can set off a downward spiral of affect. And indeed, anxiety and depression are more common among introverts than extraverts.” Moreover, “introverts are more self-critical than others--but also more realistic in their self-assessments. Call it depressive realism.” I’ll return to this in a moment. Second, though, there’s the social conflict in countries like the United States, which is home to a “cult of extraversion.” In that sort of materialistic, socially Darwinian society, the ultimate goal in life is not to philosophize, to understand, or to create; rather, the goal is to be happy, which means to feel the pleasure that comes with success in the marketplace and to enjoy the popularity and material wealth sustained or brought by that success.
This is to say that since the 1970s, after the backlash against the socialist revolution in the 60s, the effective American religion, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, has been crafted by that economy’s biggest players, the large corporations and related think tanks, infotainment outlets, lobbyists and captured politicians. As has been known since the ancient Greeks, the more open the society the more vulnerable it is to demagogues, and in the US in recent decades the demagogues that have most shaped American culture advocate ideals that presuppose extroversion. The economic reasons for this are clear: there’s more money to be made from extroverts than from introverts. Those who have a greater neurological need for external stimulation are more easily tempted and trained by sellers of products, most of which aren’t needed and thus have to be sold by dubious lines of reasoning. An introvert sees a clumsily fallacious ad and thinks long and hard before acting, whereas an extrovert is more likely to make an impulse purchase. The introvert is thus the harder sell, so in a capitalistic economy with no strong cultural counterweight to the capitalistic ideology (in the Marxist sense of “ideology”), like the US where its Christianity is laughably irrelevant, that sort of economic consideration comes to determine the population’s highest values.
Some Philosophical Context of Introversion
Helgoe’s article is informative but limited. On the one hand, the psychologist models her discipline on the hard sciences like physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Thus, psychology is supposed to be purely descriptive and objective, not to mention rigorous and exact. On the other hand, psychology distinguishes between health and illness, and between function and dysfunction, and these distinctions are normative. The psychologist borrows the values and ideals needed to generate those distinctions from society. As for a discussion of those values, that’s where psychology needs to become philosophical rather than scientific. So Helgoe’s article walks the tightrope of describing the difference between the two personality types and of highlighting dangers for introverts, but the needed social context to understand introversion at the philosophical level is naturally absent from her article.
For example, when she says that the introvert isn’t just highly self-critical but also realistic in her self-assessment, and that the introvert is prone to anxiety and depression, she implies that what spares the extrovert is delusion (as opposed to realism). Helgoe calls the introvert’s anxiety and depression the results of a “downward spiral of affect,” which is a pseudoscientific way of making a value judgment. Moreover, there’s a contradiction here. First, Helgoe says that extensive internal dialogue leads to this downward spiral of emotion such as anxiety, but then she says the introvert is more realistic than the extrovert. If the introvert’s thoughts are based more in reality, why speak of anxiety as though it were disconnected from reality, lying at the bottom of a downward spiral?
One point that’s missing from Helgoe’s article and that makes sense of these tensions can be summed up in three words: reason is accursed. The introvert thinks more than the extrovert (which isn’t to say the introvert is more intelligent); those who think a lot tend to perceive more of the real world; ultimately, the real world isn’t as we’d prefer it to be and indeed confronts us with an existential predicament; therefore, the introvert tends to be anxious and depressed rather than happy. That argument reveals the philosophical aspect of introversion.
An objection springs to mind: highly deluded people can think a lot too, because they have overactive imaginations, so just because you’re stimulated more by your thoughts than by the outer world, doesn’t mean you’re more in touch with reality. But imagining is only one kind of thinking. An introvert may create a worldview, collecting and curating thoughts, as Helgoe says, but she also strives to improve that worldview by asking questions, raising doubts, and following logical implications. Anxiety disorders are indeed matters of following rules that have lost touch with reality in that the rules lack proportion. For example, there’s the irrational fear of germs. But once again, this is creativity run amok. So if introverts tend to think more in general, as opposed to being just more likely to imagine unrealities, introverts will stay humble enough to ask tough questions about their ideas, thus keeping some sense of proportion. That is, the introvert will test her ideas by rational methods and so she’ll be less likely to succumb to politically correct delusions.
By contrast, to fit in and be happy, the extrovert will need to appear, at least, to affirm popular opinions regardless of whether those opinions are realistic. As to whether the extrovert really is more deluded than the introvert, this is hard to say, assuming the extrovert doesn’t think so much, because the test of whether someone really believes something or is just faking it has two parts. First, you check whether the person holds the belief even after she thinks long and hard about it. Second, you check whether she puts that belief into practice. The extrovert can’t pass either part of the test, but that’s only because she may not have beliefs at all. She has no deep thoughts, because she doesn’t usually stop and think. Sure, there will be patterns in her behaviour, but those will be shaped by her genetics and her environment, not by her independent mental activity. However, this would be so only for the pure extrovert. As Helgoe points out, though, there’s a continuum between the two personality types, and most people are partly introverted and partly extroverted. Most extroverts are thus only more extroverted than introverted.
As for the connection between depressive realism and the conflict between the individual and society, knowing the reality of the happiness industry tends to detach the knower from the culture created to serve that industry, and so again the introvert’s conflict with capitalistic societies isn’t just about brain structures. Perhaps the extrovert’s brain is more driven to seek happiness in the form of a wealth of social rewards, but there’s an interesting philosophical point here as well: such happiness is delusory. Those who recognize our common existential predicament, that the world is not what we’d prefer it to be and that we don’t truly belong anywhere; that death makes life ridiculous by being the great equalizer and that sex is embarrassing and horrific and thus kept secret; and that there is no God or perfect justice, nor much rational justification of morality appreciate that happiness is unbecoming. To seek a life that will make you happy, you have to ignore or deny all of that and fill your head, if anything, with memes, corporate jingles, and politically correct happy-talk, which conventional thoughts usually begin as instruments of social control. A class of consumers had to be created and must now be maintained for the sake of the new world order. Countries like China produce cheap goods and other countries must purchase those goods. Advertisements consist literally of lies or of grossly deficient arguments, and the extroverts who try to be happy in the conventional sense literally buy into the materialistic worldview that’s only an economically useful distraction rather than being philosophically (existentially, ethically, or aesthetically) well-justified.
What I’ve been calling existential cosmicism is an example of a worldview that I believe is well-justified in those ways. Introverts are more likely to gravitate to it, because such a dark worldview is obviously detrimental to the most conventional life project of being a useful member of the American-led social order, and the introvert has contempt for that project or is at least indifferent to it. To think much about the reality of that project, and to notice how it conflicts with the call for existential authenticity, is to remove yourself--to some extent at least--from that social order. The more you’re appalled by advertisements, for example, the fewer goods you’ll buy, but assuming you live in a country that’s supposed to consume more than it produces, the less you consume the less economically useful you are. And in a society in which the dominant values spring ultimately from the cynical defense of a stealth oligarchy, the economically useless members of society are marginalized and demonized.
But these relatively useless citizens are also in the know. In fact, there are two groups that understand the dark reality of how the new world order (the technoscientific, democratic, capitalistic, American-led, and effectively atheistic one) works. There are the oligarchs and especially the plutocrats who benefit the most from this world order, and there are the introverts who, for philosophical or religious reasons, detach themselves from it as omegas. The oligarch is most likely a sociopath, and it’s interesting to note that a sociopath combines traits of pure introverts and of pure extroverts. The sociopath thinks a lot but feels very little, thus having no moral compunctions to prevent him from achieving his goals by harming others. But to harm others he must disguise his nature and indeed must be an expert liar. Thus, he’ll seem friendly and outgoing even though he won’t really care about anyone else. He’ll act as an extrovert, but he’ll think like an introvert. He’ll need to be socially accepted to avoid being identified and locked up, but he’ll understand the danger he poses and that his life is a lie. When a sociopath rises to the top of a power hierarchy because of his lack of compassion, he becomes a key player in shaping the propaganda that exploits extroverts, turning them into robotic consumers.
Then there are the outcasts, omegas, artists, philosophers, and seekers who likewise understand that social conventions in a materialistic society are instruments of social control rather than truths that connect us with reality. But these hyper-rational introverts also have the emotions that take them out of the social game. Introverts understand social reality and are horrified by it, whereas oligarchs understand and run the social systems. So when Helgoe says that an introvert needs to worry about being a “misfit” in a materialistic society that favours extroverts, I take it the above is part of the philosophical context that gives meaning to that statement.
Religion and the Personality Types
Just as the psychological distinction between the personality types is incomplete without the philosophical context that can deal directly with the normative issues, without the threat of scientism, so too that context is incomplete. At some point, we reach the ultimate questions of what sort of person we ought to be and what society should be like. These questions are the least practical because they’re the most idealistic. Certainly, only an introvert would ponder them at any length and only then to curate the art gallery of her ideas, as it were, to see whether her worldview is maximally coherent. But when we move to the deepest questions, we come up against matters of ultimate concern, which the existential theologian Paul Tillich did well to identify with matters of religious faith.
As I said, American-led societies are effectively atheistic and materialistic; elsewhere, I’ve stressed their Scientism, meaning their secular humanism and the centrality of technoscience to their discourses. Their nominal religion is some brand of monotheism, but their ultimate concerns are defined by transhumanism, pragmatism, and consumerism. What Westerners care about most is to empower themselves with science and technology (transhumanism), to give them greater control over their natural life (pragmatism) but also to distract them from philosophically understanding that life; in place of that understanding, Westerners want to be happy in the materialistic sense (consumerism). As Helgoe points out, extroverts are more useful in these societies than introverts. Extroverts are attracted by the rewards derived from power (transhumanism), they prefer action to thinking (pragmatism), and they’re susceptible to the delusions of materialistic happiness that are needed to sell schlock (consumerism). By contrast, introverts are more likely to be outsiders in those societies.
And so the introvert seems to face a hard choice. Should she try to be more extroverted to fit into a Western society and be happier? Which is the better life in a deluded society, that of the anxious misfit or that of the contented winner? In terms given by the movie The Matrix, should the introvert be like Neo or like Cypher who tries to get back into the matrix? Mind you, I don’t think we choose our religions in the sense of our ultimate concerns, so much as try to discover what we’ve most cared about all along. Religions aren’t like manufactured products that are all lined up on the shelf, waiting for you to select your favourite. Those who do shop around for a religion, perhaps creating their own eclectic worldview have never been true members of any religion they’ve sampled; instead, they’re seekers or skeptics. Introverts care a lot about thinking, and thinking puts them in touch with unpleasant truths. They learn that reason is a curse, that it shows us our existential predicament which we’d rather ignore. By contrast, the extrovert prefers action and adventure, deeds rather than just talk, social interaction rather than withdrawal. She affirms the world as it is rather than stewing in self-pitying worries, but she too will confront the downside of her personality type: she’s more susceptible to manipulation by the powers that be, by the sociopathic rulers of the science-centered, American-led social order.
The key distinction in the introvert’s type of religion is that between the esoteric and exoteric, since this distinction makes sense of the social dynamic outlined above. In the modern context, the conflict between introverts and their society is overtly economical, because a science-centered religion (secular humanistic consumerism) has had to replace obsolete theism as the effective religion of the dominant culture. So the society that now most conflicts with introverts values happiness derived from labour and consumption. Introverts are marginalized in such a society and come to appreciate its absurdity. The introvert feels privileged to possess esoteric, subversive and thus unpopular wisdom, whereas the extrovert is content with superficial, conventional, exoteric knowledge. Before modern science, the introvert’s esoteric viewpoint was understood in theistic terms: the introvert was thought to have a better grasp of God’s revelation, and he withdrew from society as an ascetic because he believed he belonged to a higher, spiritual plane. In the modern age, existentialism should replace that theistic framework. The introvert isn’t vindicated in any afterlife and there is no supernatural revelation. At best, she has existential authenticity and deals heroically with the curse of her over-active brain; moreover, she enjoys the dark comedy that’s apparent only from the social outsider’s grasp of our existential situation.
The extrovert’s type of religion is quite different. For her, thinking a lot is self-indulgent and self-defeating. Extroverts want to contribute by building things, making a difference, learning about the world through an array of experiences, and relating to people rather than just to an inner museum of abstract ideas. The extrovert is interested most in people, places, and possessions, not in ideas. Philosophy itself is a distraction from the pursuit of a rich, full life. There’s no need to think so much, because the world is full of potential experiences and all you have to do to have them is act. Whereas the introvert collects ideas, the extrovert collects experiences, and so perhaps a fitting symbol of extroversion is the vacation photo album (or computer directory). The introvert dotes on her ideas, whereas the extrovert lavishes attention on her social networks, vacation plans, and material objects. When she’s on vacation, collecting exotic experiences, she may capture a host of snapshots so the experience can be converted into a series of material objects. That way, she objectifies the places she visits and can more easily manage her memories of them. Still, merely remembering an experience is a nod to introversion. An extrovert should always want to actually broaden her experiences rather than live in the past. Whereas the introvert’s hero is the ascetic or antiheroic drifter, the extrovert’s is some combination of the explorer and the alpha winner of social games.
Of course, none of the monotheistic religions suits the extrovert. Jewish laws and customs unnecessarily restrict the experiences you can have and Islam restricts them even more, while (authentic) Christianity espouses asceticism in light of dualistic revelations about the relative inferiority of fallen nature. In extroverted societies like the US, the extrovert’s effective religion is just the set of myths and practices that celebrate the dominant culture’s governing values, which I’ve already discussed (transhumanism, pragmatism, and happiness/consumerism). The modern, post-theistic form of the introvert’s religion is still inchoate, although I think existentialism and cosmicism would be elements of it. As it stands, modern introverts are on their own, although the internet paradoxically enables them to organize and form special interest groups. Some Western introverts take refuge in antiquated and preposterous worldviews, becoming priests in sell-out religious institutions. Eastern introverts have more venerable ascetic traditions in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, but these are still premodern and not fully coherent ways of understanding natural reality. Perhaps an unembarrassing postmodern religion for introverts will arise, so that the ultimate clash of civilizations won’t be between the secular West and the Islamic world, but between the Western cult of extroversion and a culture based on the introvert’s religion that begins with existential cosmicism.