There are some very real differences between introverts and extroverts, and these differences come down to how they respond to rewards. Rewards are things like getting the phone number of an attractive stranger, getting promoted at work, or even eating a delicious meal.
According to the experts, extroverts have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Having a more active dopamine reward system means that extroverts get more energized and excited by the possibility of reward than introverts. So extroverts are more driven to strike up a conversation with a stranger or hang out at the bar until last call.
Of course, introverts also care about having relationships, eating, and getting ahead at work. But simply put, introverts just aren’t as interested in pursuing the things that extroverts chase.
Having a less active dopamine reward system also means that introverts may find certain levels of stimulation — like noise and activity — to be punishing and tiring. This explains why the introvert in our bar example had fun for a little while, but felt drained as he became overstimulated.
Is It Bad to Care Less About Rewards?
Introverts don’t seek rewards to the same degree that extroverts do. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. We all have that one friend who partied too hard and paid a price, or who focused so much on getting ahead that she became a workaholic, compromising her health and relationships. These are people who chased rewards — hard.
Instead of looking for outside status, introverts tend to turn inward. They research a topic simply for the joy of learning something new. Job-wise, they seek a calling that is more than just a paycheck. They desire depth and intimacy in relationships, a connection that is mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart.
This isn’t to say that all extroverts are shallow and all introverts deep. It’s not black and white. Sometimes extroverts pursue quiet, intrinsically rewarding activities, and sometimes introverts seek status, money, popularity, and other rewards. I’d argue that a healthy, successful life for anyone includes a mix of both the introvert’s way and the extrovert’s.
When I asked introverts to tell me about the things that motivated and energized them, they all mentioned low-key activities, like a solo shopping trip, a meaningful conversation with a friend, finishing a good book, or expressing themselves through art. If it weren’t for the introverts’ less active dopamine reward system, they probably wouldn’t be focusing on these types of activities. The introvert’s way isn’t about chasing rewards, but rather about seeking meaning.