Extroverts may be known for being more comfortable in navigating social situations, but a new study finds that introverts may be better than extroverts at observing and understanding the social behavior of people in group settings, a skill that is useful in knowing how to effectively lead others.

"Introverts prone to melancholy seem to be more astute at understanding how we behave in groups than their gregarious peers," say Anton Gollwitzer and John Bargh, psychologists at Yale and authors of the study, which they published in the journal Social Psychology.

They asked more than 1,100 subjects questions about how people on average feel, think, and behave in social contexts: Do people work harder in groups or as individuals? Do people feel more responsible for their behavior in groups or as individuals?

They then did a series of experiments to identify traits of those who accurately answered these questions. Intelligence and wanting to engage with complex problems was a key predictor of accuracy, a finding that didn't surprise them. They were surprised, however, to learn that introverts tended to answer more accurately than extroverts, as did people with lower self-esteem and those who reported being more lonely.

"We think this might be the case because introverts [are] looking out at the world...and through this observation, they may more accurately judge how most people are behaving or acting or feeling," Gollwitzer told the BBC's Newsroom podcast.

The study found that even though respondents lacked formal training in social psychology, they were able to make highly accurate observations about social phenomena. Respondents could detect, for example, how people work harder individually than in groups, a concept known as social loafing, or how people feel less responsible in groups than as an individual, a phenomenon that helps explain horrors like genocide.

"Presumably one would need to take a social psychology course to accurately grasp social psychological phenomena. The possibility exists, however, that some lay individuals can accurately infer social psychological phenomena...without any background in psychology," write Gollwitzer and Bargh in Social Psychology.

Gollwitzer told YaleNews that individuals who scored high on tests about human nature do not possess the same knowledge and skills as trained social psychologists. However, he also noted that "these 'natural' social psychologists, because they better understand social phenomena, may be able to interpret and even predict social changes in our society," like some of the most notable writers and psychologists of our time. 

"The people who really captured human social nature, who really were able to capture the social psychological aspects that we all universally understand, were writers like Hemingway or psychologists like William James," Gollwitzer told the BBC. "They were able to do this, and they tended to be introverted, melancholy, observant, reflective about the world."

So, how does being particularly observant about group social behavior make introverts better leaders? Gollwitzer and Bargh don't address this connection in their study, but a growing body of research is highlighting how introverts make effective leaders.

"Extroverts exude confidence in large groups because that's where they draw their energy, so they naturally seem like the strongest leaders," observes Ilya Pozin in a recent article. "Besides being confident and engaged, they're also highly competent at bringing people together, and their good judgement is always on display. But if you think introverts aren't equally good -- and, in some ways, better --leaders and managers, you've been sorely misled."

"Science is continually proving that assumption false, and Harvard Business Review research has shown that introverts are more effective leaders in complex and unpredictable settings. In fact, introverts are uniquely suited to navigate situations that extroverts can't."

Published on: Dec 31, 2018
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