Your Kid’s Introversion Is Actually An Evolutionary Tactic

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Shy little girls who keep to the corners of classrooms are encouraged to go and socialize with their peers. Little boys who prefer to spend time alone on the playground are often deemed at risk for not making friends. Now it turns out that shy temperaments are  also recurring in the animal kingdom with many evolutionary benefits.

Susan Cain writes that as many as 20% of animal species have demonstrated introvert or “sitter” tendencies, with the same percentage evident in humans. She observes that such a disposition provides an evolutionary advantage in humans:

…sitter children are careful and astute, and tend to learn by observing instead of by acting. They notice scary things more than other children do, but they also notice more things in general. Studies dating all the way back to the 1960’s by the psychologists Jerome Kagan and Ellen Siegelman found that cautious, solitary children playing matching games spent more time considering all the alternatives than impulsive children did, actually using more eye movements to make decisions. Recent studies by a group of scientists at Stony Brook University and at Chinese universities using functional M.R.I. technology echoed this research, finding that adults with sitter-like temperaments looked longer at pairs of photos with subtle differences and showed more activity in brain regions that make associations between the photos and other stored information in the brain.

Being an introvert (preferring solitude and less stimulation) differs from being shy (afraid of negative criticism), but painfully shy children can often grow into introverts. Once students, introverted kids not only work more accurately, stay focused, and thoroughly digest information, they also earn higher numbers of National Merit Scholarship finalist positions and Phi Beta Kappa keys despite that their I.Q. scores are not any higher than that of extroverted kids. Cain cites another study that found that introverted college students often understood more in 19 different subjects than their social counterparts. The presumed conclusion was that less socializing left more time for learning.

When it comes to shy children, developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska finds them to be more conscientious and easier to socialize. Cain writes:

By 6 they’re less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can’t be caught, according to one study. By 7 they’re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy.

Considering that shyness and timidity in children is often considered a poor indicator of development, these findings hold significant importance when parenting even the smallest of wall flowers. In a time where so many parents are pushing their kids to take more classes, develop more hobbies, try out for more teams, all while be the star of the school play, it’s worth acknowledging that the less engaged aren’t in fact less engaged at all.