How we think about introverts and solitude may be all wrong

Thanks to Susan Cain’s bestselling book on the power of introverts, popular personality quizzes, and jokes of those quizzes, introversion has come to mean many different things to different people, but the central idea remains the same: that introverts prefer solitude more than other people. In general, they get their energy from being alone, while extroverts get their energy from being around people.

But a new study complicates these assumptions, suggesting that introverts do not like solitude anymore than extroverts. Liking your own company has less to do with introversion and more to do with how you think about autonomy, a new paper in PsyArXiv argues.

Just because you are an introvert, it doesn’t mean you love being alone

When the researchers recruited hundreds of students to spend 15 minutes alone each day and document their experience about it, they found that introverts enjoyed solitude no more than extroverts. Introversion and extraversion did not determine a participant’s solitary enjoyment, but a different personality trait — “dispositional autonomy” — did.

People who had a lot of dispositional autonomy were “resistant to pressure from others, and interested in learning more about their personal experiences and emotions, tended to approach solitude with choice and see it as valuable and worthwhile.”

Under this new personality paradigm, you do not enjoy solitude simply because you are a hermit who hates company, but because you are able to self-regulate your emotions and experiences. When you have a strong sense of self and feel in control of your life, solitude becomes an enjoyable experience.

Of course, we need to take these conclusions with a grain of salt as this research has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it does challenge the assertion that introversion automatically means you love being alone.

“Like the quote from Jean-Paul Sartre ‘If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company,’ ” the study concluded. “The extent that individuals are compelled by guilt, anxiety, or avoidance rather than approaching experiences with self-reflection and interest, they will find solitude an unpleasant experience, and derive little enjoyment from time spent alone.”