What’s the Difference Between Being Introverted and Shy, According to Science?
How would you feel if I asked you to be the host at a prestigious party? What about public speaking? Do you see them as a challenge or do they make you feel like being sick? The chances are if it’s the latter, you’re probably a shy person. But are you introverted as well? More to the point – what’s the difference between an introverted and shy person? Surely they are one and the same? Introverts don’t like meeting new people, neither do shy people. Introverts tend to spend more time on their own and so do shy people. This might be true, but is it true for the same reason? Consider this example; you have two friends, one is an introvert, the other is shy. You invite them both to a party.
The introverted friend declines because they would rather stay at home and watch a movie. Your shy friend also declines, but not because they don’t want to go but because they are afraid to go. And this is where introverted and shy people differ. Introverts prefer to be alone because they enjoy their own company. Shy people are scared of going out, but they do want to. So, in the end, the result might be the same, in that neither the introverted or shy person goes out, but the reason for not going out is very different. Still, we are no closer to finding out why these differences come about. Could it all be down to nature and nurture? Can a person get over being introverted or shy? Thalia Eley is a professor of developmental behavioural genetics and works at Kings College London. She believes that genes and our environment shape our personality traits. “We think of shyness as a temperamental trait and temperament is like a precursor to personality,” she says. “When very young children are starting to engage with other people you see a variation in how comfortable [they] are in speaking to an adult that they don’t know.” Can we be born either introverted or shy? Or is one affected by our genes and the other by our environment? Eley says that only 30% of shyness can be attributed to our genes.
The other 70% is all down to how we respond to our environment. In fact, Eley believes that it is a combination of genes and environment that makes a person shy, rather than introverted. A shy child might learn that engaging with other children is scary.
Therefore, they are more likely to play on their own. As this turns out to be more and more pleasurable, it starts to become their normal behaviour. And this is where it gets interesting because if it is a learned behaviour, it can also be unlearned. “It’s not that it’s one or the other; it’s both [genes and environment] and they work together,” says Eley. “It’s a dynamic system. And because of that, you can always change it through psychological therapies that can teach you techniques to cope.” So where do introverts come into all this? Do they not learn socially isolating behaviours as well? Are they not victims of their environment as much as shy people are? Well, no, actually. We tend to think that people are either introverts or extroverts and never the two shall meet, or change for that matter. This might lead us to think that introverted behaviour is all down to our genes. Studies have shown that introverts’ brains work differently when it comes to receiving rewards. Rewards are what make us do things; go out to parties, finish that essay for a good grade, get dressed for compliments, eat delicious food, even engage in addictive behaviour. But introverts respond differently to extroverts when it comes to receiving a reward.
The chemical dopamine is released when we receive a reward. It starts to buzz in our brains even by anticipating a reward. Research shows that extroverts have a more active dopamine reward centre than introverts. But why is this important? Imagine that party again with the two friends, one introverted and one shy person. Now include another friend on the guestlist – an extrovert. When the extrovert sees the invite, they are thinking of an exciting night, full of new people, good music and dancing. For the extrovert, there are numerous opportunities for rewards, the fun time, the bright lights, the getting out, and nice food and so on. For the introvert to gain any of the same rewards, they will have to put up with loud music where they can’t hear other people speaking, meeting new people and going through the motions of small talk all night.
The introvert decides it’s not worth all the effort, whereas the extrovert thinks it’s little effort.
There are further studies that show a clear difference in the way introverts’ and extroverts’ brains react. Introverts and extroverts were shown a series of pictures.
These pictures either had people’s faces on them or an inanimate object.
The results were clear, extroverts’ brains light up when viewing a person’s face. Introverts’ brains only lit up when they viewed the inanimate object. So introverts’ brains are programmed to react differently.
There is something genetically stopping an introvert from going out, but this is not the case with a shy person. This could have something to do with our evolution. “It was useful to have people in your group who were off out there exploring and engaging in new groups but it was also useful for people who were more risk-averse, [were] more aware of the threat and would do a better job protecting young offspring, for example.” Eley The best way to describe the difference between an introverted and shy person is to say that shy people can also be extroverted.
They may simply feel anxious about stepping into the limelight. Conversely, you can get some introverts who are not shy, they just like their own company and prefer to spend time on their own. I’d say the main thing to take from this article is that shy people can learn to live a more social life if they want to. For instance, there are some great CBT techniques that help to retrain the way our brains think. As for all the introverts, speaking as an introvert myself, I have to say there’s nothing wrong with enjoying peace and quiet by yourself. R.
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