Can You Learn to be Lucky?

Quiet Revolution is excited to spread the word about Karla Starr’s new book Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Karla wrote this article specifically for the Quiet Revolution community.

Want to learn how to increase your luck as an introvert? When it comes to feeling like you’re getting the short end of the stick or missing out on things, you’re not alone.

As researcher James Coan subtly stated, “The more socially isolated you are, the more likely you are to die of anything, at any time, no matter where you live, or what culture you belong to. That’s just the truth.”

Nature’s way of reinforcing good behavior—and healthy social behavior—is to make sure we don’t repeat past mistakes. But sometimes, this means that we’re paying too much attention to it. Fear of negative social evaluation is the threat of isolation looming overhead, which causes our stress response to kick in and our cortisol levels to rise.

Researchers induce social stress in animals in a number of ways, like making two animals duke it out, and then making the subordinate one live in a cage right next to the one that beat it up. Dominance is tested to see which animal doesn’t back down, like putting two mice at opposite ends of a tube and then watching to see which one concedes by getting out of the other’s way. Animals who have experienced social defeat can even show the stress response when they see a different, somewhat similar animal—their brain initiating the “hey, this unknown thing resembles something else I know! Initiate emotional and behavioral sequence!” response.

“The stress response isn’t necessarily bad. It’s a survival mechanism—if we didn’t have it, we’d die,” says Rita Valentino, a neurobiologist at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in the effects of social stress. “The stress response really becomes pathological when your adaptive mechanisms have become dysregulated.”

Timing isn’t everything, but it’s pretty damn close, especially when it comes to how our behavior is reinforced: the first experience a mouse has in a maze is the most informative maze-related experience of that mouse’s life, setting the stage for the rest of its decisions. If it enters the first door and almost gets eaten by a cat, guess which door it will avoid for as long as its survival will allow? And if it gets spooked when it enters the second door? Same thing. Experiences in elementary school still hold sway because that self-organizing system known as the brain always remembers. It’s how we learn about ourselves and how to best interact with others. Those first cues we get that other people are negatively judging us can set the stage for life.

Anxiety researcher Greg Hajcak has examined the way that different parenting styles can lead to variations in the way that children responding to their own errors. “It could be genetic,” he says. “But harsh parenting also seems to contribute [to anxiety]. Just imagine that you have a kid whose parent says ‘oh honey, that’s not where the puzzle piece goes, let’s try again’ — a soft, corrective, supportive approach. Whereas some parents are like, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ ”

While it undoubtedly has a genetic component, the onset of social anxiety can also be activated by learning to pay more attention to your losses than your gains; paying attention to something is what gives it power. The brain’s electrophysiological feedback from a mistake, called the error-related negativity, is far more pronounced in the anxious, which in turn can convince them that these tiny blunders are noticeable to all. (They tend to be the type to say “Awkward!” in social scenarios, oblivious that the situation was probably only awkward to them.) Errors are so aversive, their distress of negative feedback so palpable, that this fear of acting incorrectly can interfere with doing anything.

Humans are creative about meeting our social needs without having to deal with the possibility of being rejected or mocked—the things that can make social situations so tiring. To bypass this anxiety, introverts can create what researchers refer to as “social surrogates.” We anthropomorphize our pets and plants, pray a little more than usual, or develop relationships with higher powers.

We get lost in fictional worlds and narratives as though they were happening to us, and develop one-sided “parasocial” relationships with fictional characters. We engage with online comment sections as though barking at a spirited town hall meeting with known acquaintances. We find comfort in comfort foods. In other words, we start doing things that make rejection or social scrutiny impossible; we read and write books; we get attached to the characters in video games and on TV; we become immersed in a movie. We find energizing rewards in things that don’t involve interaction.

We engage in social snacking—the art of reading old letters, browsing through memorabilia, and scrolling through Facebook to feel like you’re connecting with your friends without actually having to interact with any of them. But by using social media to replenish our social needs, introverts might actually be making themselves unlucky, thanks to a common cognitive bias that Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman called “What You See is All There Is,” or WYSIATI.

Think about what you last posted on Facebook or Instagram: that perfect shot at the playground with your kids, a beautiful sunset, a get-together with long-lost friends. We post the good, happy moments that make up life’s highlight reel. But when we scroll, it can be easy to forget that we’re not getting random glimpses into other people’s lives, because everyone else is just posting their highlight reel, too.

After researching luck for the past several years, I’ve come to embrace my introvert side: that’s the part of me that reads, writes, and gets stuff done. But my introvert side can also make me unlucky. Writing a book means spending lots of quiet time alone (you know, a few years), with occasional breaks to fill up my social bucket. I can go a long time without seeing or talking to people I love, and when we do finally talk, we catch each other up on our lives: we discuss the highlight reel. It’s easy to get caught up in social comparison processes, focusing on what other people seem to have that we don’t. But the day to day is far more complicated than what we post on social media or discuss in passing.

Being so concerned with presenting yourself in a positive light and not messing up during a date or job interview uses oodles of mental energy that isn’t directed where it should be—towards the other person. This concern, even when we’re not aware that it’s happening, is why certain social interactions feel more taxing and less rewarding. When we’re so preoccupied with what others are thinking about us—and so bloody sure that we’re going to be negatively evaluated, on top of it all—we may never get the chance to learn that we’re interpreting someone else’s behavior incorrectly. One classic series of studies examining how accurately people were able to view their interactions concluded that “what people say about their communications bears no useful resemblance to their behavior.”

In other words, we have no idea how we actually come across to other people. The problem with social anxiety is that it can repeat forever. Any kind of improvement requires feedback, but when you’re sure that others are going to give you negative feedback about yourself, you may not put yourself out there and meet new people. You might not even think about how your behavior is influencing the situation.

Maria Avgitidis, founder of Agape Match, is a high-end matchmaker in New York who charges her clients $10,000 and offers a popular service for date coaching. She also has the distinction of being the co-founder of the Matchmakers’ Alliance, the only non-profit trade union of its kind for our industry; she is the matchmaker’s matchmaker. The first step for her date coaching is to have her clients fill out a big packet.

“It’s basically an assessment of what’s been going on, why are you single. Most people can tell you why they think they’re single.” It’s Avgitidis’s next step that’s transformational for her clients: she conducts the equivalent of a 360-interview for your love life.

“I ask their friends, ‘Why do you think your friend is single?’ And 19 out of 20 times, all the friends are going to agree as to why that person is single. It’s never about things that people think it is,” she emphasizes in her office in New York. “You don’t realize. Some people think, ‘you know what, I think I’m going to lose 10 pounds first.’

“That does not matter. That is so not why you’re single. Your insecurity about your body weight is why you’re single. Men don’t care. Men have obviously preferences just like women do, but if you find the right person, that really doesn’t matter.”

Many times, the only thing that introverts might be doing wrong in social situations is  incorrectly assuming that others are being as hard on us as we are on ourselves.

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