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The Myth of the Killer Introvert

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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. 

 

 


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31 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

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  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.

  9. jen from Tasmania on 22.07.2012 at 21:04 (Reply)

    media creates/influences public opinion unfortunately. you and I know that introverts and loners are different but clearly the media reporters and editors don’t. They need to be held responsible. Cultural change needs to also happen to convince those brainwashed by media not to use the same brush to tar loners and introverts and those with mental illnesses. I think editors need psychology training. Better still introverts need fo channel our anger on this point and write to the newspapers to correct the mislabeling. lots of work to do to make a change. your article is a step in the right direction Susan. Thanks.

  10. Thomas Thomas on 22.07.2012 at 21:24 (Reply)

    Thank you Susan. This is exactly what I was thinking with the recent shooting. The assumption regarding a quiet person is that (especially when they are a man) they are a sexual deviant or prone to violence. I find that to be quite strange since I have been a pacifist since I was 13 and my natural shyness keeps me from any sort of sexual aggression. Many of these violent types crave attention. That is totally opposite trim what an introvert wants.

  11. Gordon Livingston on 22.07.2012 at 22:45 (Reply)

    It is not a slander on shy or quiet people to observe that alienated loners (with or without a diagnosable mental illness) are over-represented among mass murderers. In addition to James Holmes of Aurora we have, for example, Nidal Hassan (Ft. Hood), Jared Laughner (AZ), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech. And, of course, the Columbine killers. Notice some personality similarities in this group? While the vast majority of introverted people are obviously not a threat to anyone, it silly to overlook commonalities in personality structure among those angry enough to commit these otherwise inexplicable crimes. There is no pain like loneliness and rejection.

    1. Tim on 24.07.2012 at 09:07 (Reply)

      Could you perhaps define “personality structure”? Thats a new term in my book. Perhaps you mean “personality disorder”? Personality and personality disorder are two different things. Someone’s personality does not make them predisposed to committing violent, inexplicable crimes. A imbalance in their way of thinking about themselves and the world around (otherwise known as a mental illness) could cause that. Both introverts and extroverts are equally predisposed to mental illness. Personality type (or structure as you like to call it) has little bearing.

    2. Sebastian on 24.07.2012 at 15:12 (Reply)

      Gordon, that may be so, but loneliness/rejection and introversion are not the same thing (an introvert typically is thankful for time he/she can spend alone), so a rejected loner should not be called an introvert nor vice versa.

  12. Daniela on 22.07.2012 at 23:06 (Reply)

    We can share this article… information is the way to fight prejudice.

  13. laura on 23.07.2012 at 02:57 (Reply)

    Thanks so much for this. I’m sure that those of us who are quieter and more reclusive are often much harder to get to know so we labeled as weird or ill or misfits. Which is just not true. I just need more alone time to rest and recharge and regroup from a noisy, invasive world.

  14. Laurie on 23.07.2012 at 06:01 (Reply)

    Thanks you for this post. I expect that when I go to work today, my first work day following the horrific shootings at the movie theater in Aurora, CO, I’ll hear comments like “it’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for”.

  15. Introverts are Awesome on 23.07.2012 at 07:04 (Reply)

    Thank you for this, and I agree.
    There should be no correlation between quiet people and mentally ill people. There should be a publicly defined difference.
    People in other countries are being killed just for being considered introverted, the world needs to stop confusing us with “crazy.”
    We are the founders of a large part of what makes this world as advanced as it is. We need more recognition of our strengths.

  16. claire gallagher on 23.07.2012 at 07:32 (Reply)

    i agree with most of your article, as im an introvert myself. but i also suffer from bipolar disorder with psychotic features. that is, i have a severe mental illness. just as introversion does not equal mentally ill, mentally ill does not equal violent behavior.

    In fact, we have something in common with you. Studies also show that the mentally ill are much more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators. so you arent alone in that.

    So it is also a “cultural myth” when you suggest that the mentally ill are violent. most violent crime is NOT committed by the mentally ill. and that small percentage of the mentally ill who do commit crimes, do so because they are untreated or homeless. and each of us has a responsibility to intervene on their behalf BEFORE tragedy strikes.

    Commentaries like yours increase the stigma surrounding mental illnesss and contribute to the fact that many people dont seek help out of shame. and i cringe everytime i read an article like this one.

    we dont know enough about this boy to understand why he committed this horrendous crime. but he will surely pay the price. and so it should be. but as we put him under the microscope(unfortunately something that should have been done long before this tragedy), let’s not lump all mentally ill people in with him.

    1. Sioniann on 21.05.2013 at 08:42 (Reply)

      Thanks for this.

  17. Christine on 23.07.2012 at 10:12 (Reply)

    Thank you for standing up, and speaking the truth, to help others understand how the introvert is stereotyped. What happened was a tragedy, but as you pointed out, was a result of psychological problems, and not that he was introverted or shy. I do not think people, society, really realize how profoundly this can affect the lives of those who are labeled introvert. I have to work twice as hard every day to prove to the world, that I am confident, intelligent, and a very caring person. I am just comfortable with the quiet and process and learn things in a unique way. Never, would I ever want to hurt someone in any way. Instead, I go out of my way to be fair with others, as I understand how it feels to be judged, without people taking the time to really know me.

    We should always think before we speak, and understand, how our actions effect others.

  18. SV on 23.07.2012 at 14:09 (Reply)

    it is sad to stereotype people as this !!

  19. Jenna on 23.07.2012 at 22:57 (Reply)

    I’ve always been quiet. I was even more so in high school. My first year of college I received a scholarship to study abroad for a couple months. Being alone in a foreign country helped me cope better in the world of extroverts, but I still test to the far end of the scale in MBTI. A few years later when my youngest sibling was entering the same language class I had taken in high school, I visited my beloved language teacher. She commented on how much I had changed, saying that I had scared her back in the day because I was so quiet. Although I understood that her very gregarious nature was so different to mine, that it would have been harder for her to feel kinship with me. She had always been so kind and direct. It still hit my heart to hear that she could have been scared of me just because I was quiet.

  20. Ronald J MacPherson on 14.08.2012 at 06:15 (Reply)

    The reason that this type of mis-information appears is mainly due to the limits of space and time available for news items whether that’s in the newspaper or other media. We are exposed to so much information that turns out to be wrong despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact that there is so much of it.

    Personally I am retired from an executive position with a non-profit corporation where I was exposed daily to the need to be a direct communicator. At first this was excedingly difficult for me due to intorversion. But eventually I was able to cope and to do some extrordinary things that others could not. So there seems to be distict advantages to being introverted as “Quiet” has demonstrated so elequently.

  21. kiwimusume on 24.08.2012 at 06:32 (Reply)

    When I was in Year 11, I went through a phase where I sassed the teachers a lot. Another student would have gotten a detention for that, but because I chose to hang out alone rather than with kids who I liked fine but didn’t click with, I was accused of being a school shooter risk. I thought of myself as a sociopath for over a decade after that, and when I finally sought therapy I thought the therapist was going to teach me how to be “normal”. Imagine my surprise when she told me that I’d been normal all along and that my school counsellor had made a monumental cock-up.

    I’ve since found out that I’m not the only one who’s been treated as if there was something wrong with them for being introverted, and I really hope that your work will help put a stop to it.

  22. kiwimusume on 24.08.2012 at 17:34 (Reply)

    I tried typing this before but it might have been censored because it contained an expletive. I get really angry when I hear about this particular misinformation about introverts because it had a very real and destructive impact on my life.

    When I was in Year 11 I went through a phase where I sassed the teachers a lot. Anybody else would have just gotten a detention, but because I chose to hang out alone rather than with kids I liked fine but just didn’t click with, I got accused of being a potential shooter risk. I thought of myself as a sociopath for over a decade after that - while other women worried that they were ugly on the outside, I worried that I was ugly on the inside - and when I finally sought therapy I thought the therapist was going to teach me how to be “normal”. Imagine my surprise when she told me that I was normal all along and that what my school counsellor had done was unacceptable.

    I’ve since found out that many other people have faced this kind of treatment for being introverted (a couple of whom I know personally) and I hope that your work will help put a stop to it. I’m also upset that Jenna’s teacher thought it was OK to tell her that she was “afraid” of her because she was quiet. I hope that your work will teach both quiet people and people like Jenna’s teacher that such comments are not justified, and give quiet people the confidence to say so.

    1. kiwimusume on 25.08.2012 at 02:56 (Reply)

      Oops, looks like there wasn’t an issue with my first comment after all. Sorry about the double post!

  23. lnbee on 25.08.2012 at 13:59 (Reply)

    The myth continues to be stoked by the media. Today’s headline regarding the Empire State Building shoot-out on 8/23/12: “NY GUNMAN QUIET LONER; VICTIM OUTGOING FAMILY MAN”. Courtesy of Colleen Long an Tom Hays, Associated Press.

    Disgraceful.

    1. Diunte on 25.11.2012 at 00:14 (Reply)

      I read the article about the quiet loner gunman and i think the title doesn’t fit it at all nowhere in the article is mentioned that he was a loner other than title.. unbelievable

  24. Introvert Myth: Dark Knight Rises Shooting and Introverted Killers? | Crazy Introvert on 03.03.2013 at 00:42

    [...] when follow-up news articles started trickling in about the gunman.There is this myth of the “introverted” killer that the media immediately eats up whenever horrible events caused by mentally-ill people [...]

  25. Sioniann on 21.05.2013 at 08:38 (Reply)

    I’m glad to see that this article highlights that introversion and mental illness are not one in the same, however, it also must be noted that mental illness and violence or being “deranged” are also not one in the same. I have been introverted all of my life but I also have a schizophrenia spectrum disorder. Persons with schizophrenia are actually less likely to commit violent crimes than the general population and are much more likely to be victims of said crimes. It is most definitely a misconception that introverts have homicidal tendencies, but it is equally as much of a misconception that mental illness causes homicidal tendencies. I fear that this article and the comments perpetuate this misconception, which unfortunately perpetuates the stigma that goes along with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Schizotypy (as a personality trait) should be valued in the same way as introversion as it harbors creativity and creates diverse human experiences.

  26. Elise on 22.09.2013 at 04:50 (Reply)

    The problem is lack of support for and social inclusion, period.

    Gun ownership does not even have as much to do with it.

    It is the fear of difference and subsequent ostracizing, stigmatising and exclusion of any group of people that sets up the emotional climate where people explode. Even just because, in the case of persons prone to vioent psychosis, there is a crucial lack of funding compared to the incidence of mental illness in the community.

    These people do not get treated adequately. They do not get treated adequately because society refuses to allocate enough money to these major health issues. People refuse to give adequate money and concern for people who fall victim to mental illness because they hear stories like these, reported in this way, and that fear-based primitive instinct for avoiding or shunning difference kicks in. All people who experience mental illness, no matter what kind or what severity (including those who never own up to it out of legitimate fear of being shunned by people) suffer. Those with severe illness don’t get proper treatment, and in turn are then much more likely to be violent if they are prone to psychosis with violence (especially if they self medicate with alcohol or otger drugs).

    This is not even taking into consideration the horrible cruelty of social rejection - by friends, family members, neighbours, employers, etc etc etc. This has a massive - massive- impact on self esteem, even length of life - and it also generates a great amount of resentment in some. Add the factor of their being male ( since it is almost only males who are killers) and the lack of open support for illnesses of the mind in our culture …and basically society creates what it fears.

    People get all worked up about mass shootings by deranged men, “loners with a mental illness” ….well the “loner” part was imposed on them by society. What of the millions of slow painful deaths experienced by all the poor souls unlucky enough to bear frail genes (genes that are supposedly still around because they also confer talent or intelligence in eith different environments or in close relatives) in our community….?

    For all Hitler’s evils, at least he had consistency. Our society still kills persons who experience mental illness - just more slowly, and arguably more painfully because social exclusion is extremely painful. It also creates more mental illness because so many people avoid getting treatment earlier on or at all, because identifying as “mentally ill” means you ave a label that marks you as subhuman in the eyes of so many people (though funnily enough, it is often those who could relate but deny this vehemently that are the harshest and who do most of the excluding -in other words, mental illness is society’s dirty little secret …but it will always come out. Maybe there will always be some of these tragic cases. But it doesn’t require research to figure out that with greater social inclusion and adequate funding (for medication, treatment, or hospital stays) that there would be a lot less of these tragic outcomes for ‘normal people’ - which, of course is all that “normal people” care about: the ‘in-group’ and never anyone outside of that.

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