Having an active social life is one of the strongest predictors of longevity and good health. Human connection is one of the most fundamental and important human drives. But it can also be our most tiring! Quick question: raise your hand if you ever get tired after talking to too many people. Did you raise your hand? Congrats: you’re human!
I think we tend to overplay our differences, and underestimate just how similar we all really are deep down in our basic needs, strivings, and frustrations. Our common humanity. Emerging research shows that even though we each show distinct patterns of thoughts, motivations, and behaviors that make us different from each other, we actually display the whole spectrum of behaviors in our everyday life. Everybody sometimes gets tired from too many social interactions, sometimes acts like a jerk, sometimes is lazy, etc. Just some of us are consistently more so on a regular basis than others.
In a brand new study, two Finnish researchers looked at one of the most prominent descriptions about introverts: that they need to be alone and recharge after too many social interactions. While this is undoubtedly true, does this really differentiate introverts from extraverts? Incredibly this idea has never actually been tested scientifically until now.
Over the course of 12 days, 48 participants filled out measures of their personality, mood, stress, and levels of fatigue. Five times a day, they were asked to describe their behavior, feelings, and situations during the last hour. They also were asked to describe the extent to which they interacted in person with others in the past hour. In addition to looking at the effects of behaving extraverted, they also looked at the effects of behaving conscientiously (studying, working, and having a goal that they tried to accomplish in the past hour).
They found that the more people were acting extraverted and conscientious, the more they reported being in a positive mood and feeling lower levels of fatigue in the moment, but after 3 hours they reported higher levels of fatigue. The level of fatigue depended on the number of people met during the last hour, the intensity of the social interactions, and how much they had a specific goal in mind when they were studying or working. Interestingly, these effects were found for both introverts and extraverts.
While the findings on conscientiousness are not surprising (hard work is hard work!), this is the first direct evidence suggesting that too much socializing is draining for everyone. Indeed, prior research has shown that in general, when under stress, tired, or living in crowded circumstances, people often choose to be alone if they can. This research also adds to a growing literature suggesting that in the moment, acting extraverted has the same consequences on mood for both introverts and extraverts. Taken together, all of this research suggests that for most humans on this planet, having a reasonable amount of social interaction and working hard toward goals makes people feel good, but too much of either tends to make people tired after a few hours.
Nevertheless, there are real differences between introverts and extraverts that shouldn't be ignored. For one, introverts really do prefer solitude and quiet time more, on average, than extraverts. Also, the latest science of introversion suggests that extraverts are more driven to engage in social interactions that particularly increase social status or social attention. Extraversion seems to be fueled by dopamine, particularly through the reward circuits of the brain that cause us to get excited by the possibility of "appetitive rewards" in the environment, such as money, power, sex, and social status.
This study didn't differentiate between the particular nature of the interactions, or the reward value of the interactions, but I predict that there would have been real differences between introverts and extraverts if these more nuanced variables had been assessed. For instance, perhaps introverts get more depleted quicker after having to engage in 'networking'. Or perhaps after too much social intensity, introverts retreat to solitude to recharge their batteries, whereas extraverts might seek out more social interactions with a smaller group of friends. All of these questions are ripe for future research.
Nevertheless, this is a neat little study that shows that deep down, we all find it draining having to talk to too many people, and having to work really, really hard. It's draining for all of us. This is something we can all bond over and discuss at the water cooler. Or not.
© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved
Note: It should be noted that this study had a small sample size (48 participants) and consisted mostly of females (41/48). So while this is definitely not the final word on this topic, I hope more researchers will look at ways in which we are united in our personalities, as well as the ways in which we differ.