The Myth of Extrovert Empathy

Popular belief would have it that being effusively social in nature is to be more empathetic, more in tune with others’ feelings.  I would say from personal observation however that the opposite is true.

Extroverts are adept at picking up every little sign that flickers across the surface.  They are excellent at functioning in groups, quickly perceiving hierarchies and balances of power.   They know how to be friendly to everyone when it suits them, and will talk about their personal matters to anyone.  They love to be around people as a whole but not necessarily persons.

This is where the introvert reigns.  One who knows how to listen, who isn’t worried about dominating a given social interaction is far better at dealing with people one on one.  Introverts understand that most people’s public persona is just a defense and are intrigued by what lies underneath.  They understand it takes time and patience to know someone well, that one cannot really be spoken with until they are removed from surrounding social pressures.

An extrovert considers those who fail to impress them in the first two minutes boring.  Persons are a commodity, if one fails to entertain, there’s always another more sensational channel to flip to.  The crowds of people they gravitate towards ensure that there is an unlimited pool of persons through whom they can rotate at will.  Extroverts are perhaps thought to be the empathizers because they loudly express sympathy should they learn of anyone’s misfortune.  Then they move on to the next thing.

An extrovert measures their social life and that of others by how many friends, social contacts, how many social events they are invited to.

An introvert measures their social life by the quality of the people they have chosen to count as friends and of those whom they have had the opportunity to know.

When the world has turned on you, when you need someone to listen and understand, or at least really try to understand what you’ve been through.   It is an introvert you are searching for.

Zygmunt writes on matters of introvert culture at Kingdom of IntroversionThe Myth of Extrovert Empathy appears here with his permission.

on 11/9/10 in featured, Society | 3 Comments | Read More

Comments (3)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    This is a myth found not only in popular culture but also in psychological tests of empathy, which measure social activity and the belief that one understands others, rather than looking at a person’s actual understanding of others. More on that here:

  2. Lili Marlene says:

    I suspect that the real story is a whole lot more complex than dividing people into extrovert and introvert categories. Obviously, for a start, there are the other very important dimensions of personality - openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and the badly-named “neuroticism”. Disagreeableness is one thing that I share with my hubby, and my openness to experience is one thing that we don’t share, so I guess that is why he is so candid in his criticism of my taste in music.

    One also needs to ask why some people are introverts, and are some apparent extroverts really only pretending to be extroverts? Also, will a love of people and a love of human interaction win out over difficulty or disability? Are some people at heart simply not that interested in or rewarded by human interaction? Tonight I saw on TV an ultra-geeky Australian pop culture identity Dr Karl talking about his prosopagnosia. He is not the only super-geek who has this condition - I recently read a very interesting article by Dr Oliver Sacks that was published in the New Yorker about his prosopagnosia. Sacks wrote that he thinks “a significant part of” what some people believe is his Asperger syndrome is a “misinterpretation of my difficulty recognizing faces.” Face-blindness could certainly make a person behave like an introvert or a social phobic, but despite the difficulties, Dr Karl and Dr Oliver look like extroverts and look as though they love dealing with people. I’ve now got to wonder if there is a link between a love of science and poor face processing. I have recently discovered that I have above-average abilities in recognizing faces and reading facial expressions, but contrary to the established scientific theories, I also appear to be on the autistic spectrum, and I often use my face recognition smarts to quickly avoid people that I already know and don’t wish to interact with. I would happily sell my fusiform gyrus to the highest bidder if I could. The question that is intriguing me at present is whether my shit-hot face-reading ability is the cause of my disdain of humanity. Do I have so little time for the bulk of humanity because I understand other minds much too well? When I look at faces I often don’t like what I see.

    Another question that I’m currently ruminating on is the question of how much some people can possibly have in common with other people. There are serious limits to how much people who are very different can share, and this must limit the possibilities for social interaction. I know that kids who suffer from high or profound intellectual giftedness can be by necessity very socially isolated, as they simply lack peers. Is this also true of people who’s personalities or minds are very different from the norm due to having a genetic syndrome? I suspect this is very much the case. People are so very complex and varied - why don’t I find them more interesting?

  3. Lili Marlene says:

    Quote from Zygmunt’s article “This is where the introvert reigns. One who knows how to listen, who isn’t worried about dominating a given social interaction is far better at dealing with people one on one.”

    I’ve got to wonder if I look like an introvert or an extrovert these days. I used to be the one who wouldn’t say booo to a goose, but in my more mature years I naturally tend to dominate social interactions, and I find this is true of the other autists that I know, but at the same time, I’m not keen enough on socializing to call myself an extrovert.

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