Introverts Are Actually Better At Reading The Room Than Others, A New Study Says


Introverts are often thought of as shy and socially awkward, but it turns out that this stereotype likely isn't true: According to a new study, introverts are naturally skilled in predicting social phenomena in a way that other people may not be. Conducted by psychologists working out of Yale University, the research was recently published in the journal Social Psycology — and ultimately, it highlights an often underappreciated skill many introverts have.

According to the American Psychological Association, social psychology can best be described as the study of “how individuals affect and are affected by other people and by their social and physical environments” — that is, the field focuses largely on understanding why individuals behave as they do within social contexts. This behavior is often expressed through what are termed social psychological phenomena, many of which most people are at least passingly familiar with. The bystander effect, for example? That’s a social psychological phenomenon; so is “social loafing,” which describes the tendency for people to “expend less effort when working collectively than when working individually,” according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Social loafing is about more than just that one person who never pulls their weight when you're working on group projects, by the way; a press release on the current research notes that this phenomenon “helps explain horrors like genocide.” So, y'know... just... keep that in mind. For the future. And also the present.

Anyway, although laypeople obviously won’t have the same depths of understanding about social psychological phenomenon as trained social psychologists, some people do have social psychological skill — that is, they’re accurately able to infer how people as a general group might think, feel, or behave in certain social situations. And according to the current study, which can be read online for free here, introverts tend to have social psychological skill in spades.

The researchers conducted six test-based studies examining how social psychological skill manifests and what traits and attributes it is or isn’t associated with by having the participants fill out a series of tests and inventories. The main survey used across all of the studies asked participants true/false and multiple choice questions about social psychological phenomena, while other tests and inventories used included the Big Five personality inventory and the Need For Cognition Scale.

The first of the six studies examined both “whether individual differences in social psychological skill exist,” and if so, whether those differences are consistently reliable; meanwhile, the second tried to suss out whether there were predictors that might indicate someone naturally has social psychological skill. The third and fourth studies both replicated Study 2, with Study 3 serving simply to confirm the findings and Study 4 intending to control for the science test-taking skill of the participants. The fifth study sought to figure out whether social psychological skill relates at all to skill at intuitive physics or to self-deception — and lastly, the final study examined whether or not there was a relationship between social psychological skill and whether people tended to judge another individual's behavior more on "situational influences" or on the kind of person they thought they were.

The research found that social psychological skill was reliable; additionally, the scientists were able to nail down some traits and attributes that correlate with high levels of social psychological skill: People with decreased cognitive and motivational bias, good problem solving and decision making skills, a “willingness to play with ideas and engage in effortful cognition” — something termed “cognitive curiosity” — and melancholic introversion showed increased or heightened social psychological skill. What’s more, these associations remained even when the researchers controlled for science test-taking skill.

The relationship between social psychological skill and melancholic introversion in particular is the thing to note here. As co-author Anton Gollwitzer described it in a press release, “It seems to be a case of sadder but wiser. [Melancholic introverts] don’t view the world through rose-colored glasses as jovial and extroverted people do.” He elaborated, “It could be that the melancholic, introverted people are spending more time observing human nature than those who are busy interacting with others, or they are more accurate at introspection because they have fewer motivational biases.”

Whatever the cause, however, Gollwitzer noted that the study “demonstrates an unappreciated strength of introverts”: They’re able to understand what people are likely to do in social contexts, which is a valuable skill indeed. As Gollwitzer put it, “These ‘natural’ social psychologists… may be able to interpret and even predict social changes in our society — maybe they are exactly what is missing from our current governance and positions of power.”

Curious about how you stack up yourself? You can take the survey used in the study on Yale’s website. It’s pretty eye-opening; in addition to gaining insight on how well you infer people’s behavior in social contexts, it also kind of gives you an outside look at how you view humanity. I was pretty good at it — apparently my score was better than about 76 percent of other scores — but as I answered each question, I also found myself thinking, “Gee, I seem to have a really bleak outlook on humans. Just, y’know, in general.”

Food for thought.