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The Myth of the Killer Introvert

Author: Susan Cain

article 0 0D82A266000005DC 839 468x471 The Myth of the Killer IntrovertIntroversion does not equal psychosis or a propensity to violence.

This really shouldn’t need to be said, of course. Except that it does.

On Monday, The Daily Mail reported a tragically familiar story. A 23 year old named Joseph McAndrew stabbed his parents and twin brother to death in the kitchen of their family home. Here were the very first words of the article: “A… ‘loner and introvert’ allegedly stabbed to death his twin brother, mother and father…”

I’m sure this formulation is as familiar to you as the story itself. The media often brings us tales of “shy,””quiet,””introverted” killers.

I’m not disputing that Joseph McAndrew was a quiet guy who kept to himself. The article reports that he spent most of his time alone in his room.

But McAndrew was not just introverted. He was deranged. He’d been struggling with mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, for many years. And herein lies the problem. People who suffer from psychoses often withdraw from the world. Technically, they are “introverted” in the sense of having turned inward.

BUT THEY ARE NOT INTROVERTS IN THE SENSE THAT MOST PEOPLE USE THAT WORD, to connote a person who has a rich inner life and prefers low-stimulation environments (the company of a close friend to a big group, a quiet game of tennis compared to bungee jumping.)

In fact, studies show that introverted young people are less prone to violence and delinquency than extroverts are! They also smoke less and use fewer drugs.

Here’s another way to look at the problem. People who suffer from mania tend to be sociable, talkative, and energetic. So do narcissists. But that doesn’t mean that extroversion = mania or narcissism.

Please, can we finally put this cultural myth to rest?

I’m curious whether you have the same reaction I do to these kinds of media stories. What can we do about this problem, which is somewhere between a bias and a semantic issue? Please share your thoughts!

*The photo above is Joseph McAndrew’s twin brother. He looks incredibly kind, doesn’t he?  Heartbreaking to think he will never smile like that again. Apparently he was one of his brother’s staunchest advocates. 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Julie on 09.03.2011 at 15:26 (Reply)

    Thank you for this. Yes, I have the same reaction. After Columbine, it seemed like any student who wasn’t head cheerleader or captain of the football team was suddenly suspicious!

    “In fact, studies show that introverted young people are less prone to violence and delinquency than extroverts are! They also smoke less and use fewer drugs.”

    I believe it! We have more inner resources, so we don’t turn to delinquency and substances just because we’re bored. I think we’re less prone to give in to destructive peer pressure, too, for the same reasons we don’t do the “work” of being popular, as you noted earlier.

    Anyway, this is a very sad story. It should be shining a spotlight on the difficulties of mental illness, not calling out introverts and “loners.”

  2. Alex on 09.03.2011 at 15:43 (Reply)

    you have no idea how many weird looks i get every time a school shooting hits the news…

  3. Susan on 09.03.2011 at 16:19 (Reply)

    This issue is exactly why I started my blog. I am sick and tired of all the negative connotations attached to the word “introvert.” It’s a shame that so many people in the media misuse this word. They need to just stop.

    If anything, this makes me strive to work even harder to move the definition of introvert in a more positive direction.

  4. Bill on 10.03.2011 at 11:17 (Reply)

    Susan, thank you for highlighting the biggest misconception about introverts: the idea that introversion is synonymous with mental illness.

    Our country suffers from a critically poor level of public education in regard to the causes, symptoms, and consequences of mental illness. Even so-called “educated” media coverage of tragic events like this one tends to focus on a single symptom — the murderer’s introversion — rather than the underlying schizophrenia that led to this unfortunate event.

    I’ve even heard of recent cases where quiet or shy schoolchildren (who are traditionally more likely to be the subjects of bullying anyway) have been subjected to even greater bullying and suspicion because they’re perceived as potentially “crazy”… not only by other students, but even by teachers and other faculty members.

  5. Susan Cain on 10.03.2011 at 13:53 (Reply)

    Bill, thx so much for your post. I want to collect stories of the kind you mention, so we can do something about this. If you’d like, please could you share any details of the recent cases of quiet kids you know who are perceived by teachers/peers as potentially crazy?

  6. Geek Profiling in High School on 10.03.2011 at 14:41

    [...] Previous Article: The Myth of the Killer Introvert [...]

  7. The Shytrovert on 01.06.2011 at 14:46 (Reply)

    Thank you so much for writing this important post! As an introvert and a shy person, I too am tired of the label of “weirdo” being attached to those who live quieter lives. It’s obvious we have a long way to go as a society before we can truly see introverted and shy people as simple people.

  8. Andrea on 28.06.2011 at 08:42 (Reply)

    Thank you for this. I’m an introvert and finally making peace with who I am. Being a wall flower is just not accepted in our society. Increasingly, one feels the pressure to put on a brave face in social situations not just to be accepted but to avoid being branded as potentially dangerous.

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16 Things I Believe

1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16.“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi