Economist Blames Introverts For Your Ennui
A lesson in detecting bullsh*t that’s meant to blame and shame for the sake of “the economy”
However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds,
it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.
— Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit
If you’re not having as much fun as you used to be, economist Allison Schrager suggests you blame the introverts.
Okay, that’s not exactly her argument. But it’s not not her argument, either. In a recent Bloomberg column, Schrager claims introverts have taken over the US economy. Or maybe that was just her editor at Bloomberg carefully crafting a headline primed for clicks. Either way, I call bullshit.
One of the most valuable skills in the attention economy is the ability to call bullshit. Disingenuous arguments and duplicitous data analysis designed for maximum virality constantly vie for our attention. When we call bullshit on this type of discourse, we can avoid distraction and push back on tactics that trigger our fears or insecurities. Knowing how to spot bullshit doesn't just help us steer clear of clickbait or detect bad arguments.
When you can spot bullshit, you have more agency, greater perspective, and a far better chance of escaping the pathologies of modernity.
Are the kids alright?
Schrager's article, "The Introverts Have Taken Over the US Economy," got plenty of play on the platform formerly known as Twitter—including retweets from Richard Florida (unironically, I assume) and Malcolm Harris (ironically, I think)—and a highlight in LinkedIn’s News feature. But I found out about it from Jon Favreau and Max Fisher on the Offline podcast.
Fisher, the introvert in the duo, begins his commentary with some self-deprecating humor and then quickly pivots to something more earnest. "As the creator of the introvert economy," jokes Fisher, "I'm so sorry." He continues: "I found this argument really persuasive. It really crystalized a lot for me."
I get it. There are reasons for concern when it comes to social trends. There’s concerning data about our levels of loneliness and the prevalence of depression and anxiety. We’re addicted to our screens. America seems to be more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. It’s nice to think that being a little more pro-social and going out more often might solve those issues.
I listened to the rest of the brief conversation between Favreau and Fisher, detecting a pungent aroma wafting through my car. But I generally trust these two guys—especially when it comes to media and messaging analysis. So, I knew I needed to read this article in full and see what the fuss was about. Given the attention that Favreau and Fisher gave it, I expected a well-argued thinkpiece sort of thing, but I got a short opinion column instead.
The data that Schrager draws on is legitimately interesting. Americans, it seems, are going out for dinner considerably earlier than they were pre-pandemic. She cites data from reservation app Resy that shows 5:30 p.m. is now a more popular time for reservations than 8 p.m.1 We're also going out less on the weekends. Gen Z is drinking less, and single people are less likely to approach strangers.
But does any of this data point to a conclusion that introverts have taken over the US economy? Hardly! It's difficult to see how it even leads to a conclusion that there's a problem to be solved. In fact, the Resy article describes the trend toward earlier dinners only positively—citing comments from both diners and restauranteurs.
Before I get into the rest of the bullshit, there's a small issue of semantics to clear up. Introverts are neither anti-social nor necessarily shy. They’re not loners or self-obsessed hermits. Introverts process social interactions differently, and while that may impact their economic decision-making, Schrager doesn't cite any data about how introverts spend money or time differently than their extroverted peers. While introverts may be less likely to go out or strike up conversations with new people, a growing prevalence of those behaviors does not indicate that introverts somehow have more power or influence in the economy.
Okay, I got that out of my system. That's it for the "That's not what 'introvert' means!" part of this critique.
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🚩 Red Flag: Pinning the blame on an out-group
Schrager's argument is designed to raise the alarm. What will it mean for our "mental health and social cohesion" if people aren't going out as often? She ends the piece with a warning: "If you don’t have fun now, you’ll pay for it later."2
The implication here is a microeconomic one. People are making the wrong decisions for themselves. Homo economicus—rational economic man—would know that going out more means socializing more, which means being happier and more productive. If people (such as, ahem, introverts) choose to go out less often, they're acting irrationally and against their self-interest.
Schrager never engages with the socioeconomic questions that might provide a completely different explanation for the data she cites. For instance, what role has rising food prices had on how people use discretionary income? How has the percentage of take-home pay spent on "going out" changed? What cultural or social factors (e.g., not wanting to support an industry that exploits its workers in such egregious ways) might make Americans less likely to patronize bars and restaurants? How else might Americans be socializing, and what is the cultural impact of those activities?
I could keep going. But I think I've made my point.
One clear indicator of bullshit is an analysis that only examines a "problem" at an individual level. By ignoring structural influences, Schrager creates a framework that at once blames introverts for disrupting our "social cohesion" and shames introverts who choose to socialize in ways other than "going out." When we only look at social trends through this individual lens, we turn problematic systems into problematic people. I realize that sounds a bit dramatic—but it was exactly this framework at work in the conversation between Favreau and Fisher.
Fisher harkens back to the late aughts and early 2010s when introverts were getting a lot of recognition online. In a world that felt like it was "built by extroverts for extroverts," a headline on Huffington Post or Buzzfeed that simply acknowledged the existence of people who liked being alone or grew tired after socializing was viral gold. "What's happened in the 15 years since," quips Fisher, "is that the introverts won."
I mean, really? Have the introverts won? Because that's news to me. Fisher—the introvert—continues, "We have the introvert's world now, and it sucks."
I'd argue that what sucks might not be that introvert preferences have become social norms but that structural factors make it nearly impossible for people who want to socialize more to do so easily. Wage stagnation, food prices, housing prices, suburban living, etc., are all obstacles to socializing outside one's household—and often to socializing inside one's household.
🚩 Red Flag: Assuming what's normal (and what’s not)
Schrager's article assumes that it is the norm for people to go out to bars and restaurants for the bulk of their socializing. What's more, she assumes that going out later somehow leads to more fulfilling social interactions—otherwise, why panic about people going out earlier?
Any time an argument rests on assumptions about what's normal, our bullshit detectors should start going off. Neither data nor science is immune from the influence of dominant norms. The fact that Schrager chose data about "going out" belies her own beliefs about how people should or shouldn’t socialize. The result is that the data is filtered through a normative lens. And what’s not normal becomes pathologized—introversion is framed as a social disease.
It took me about 3 minutes to consider what data might refute Schrager's concerns, wonder about National Park Service data, and then find that data. People may be going out to bars and restaurants less than they did before the pandemic. But National Park attendance is back to pre-pandemic levels. Similarly, outdoor recreation equipment sales have continued to rise steadily. And the number of people participating in indoor climbing (a very social activity) rose 7% between 2019 and 2021—an all-time high.
So yeah, are people socializing less? Or are they socializing differently?
Favreau and Fisher's comments about norms focused on screen time. That's understandable since the premise of the show is exploring how online life impacts us and how we can be more intentional about spending time offline. There's an implicit assumption here that spending time online can't be socially fulfilling in the same way spending time with people offline is. And that's ableist garbage.
For many people, myself included, the online world exists within parameters that make socializing easier. Socializing online (excluding Zoom) is the only time I socialize unmasked. Here, we can exist without the stigma that comes from not making eye contact (or the exhaustion that comes from trying to sustain it). We can free ourselves from the confusion and anxiety that accompanies verbal processing delays. We can seek out clear rules about what's allowed and what's not.
I recognize that those parameters don't make things easier for everyone; they're not "normal" things to want in a social interaction. But I don't pathologize people who like to socialize offline. Why pathologize me and people like me who prefer to socialize online? I don’t think people who meet up at a bar or go to parties are unnatural. So why portray people like me as unnatural?
Assuming that one way of doing things is normal and another is abnormal is a strong indicator of bullshit.
🚩 Red Flag: Not following the money
Schrager seems especially troubled that Gen Z is going out and drinking less. What?! I'm sorry. Forgive me. I still find the whole premise of this article ridiculous.
Of course, if Gen Z was going out more often, there'd be thinkpieces about how they shouldn't complain about insurance premiums, student debt, wage stagnation, or housing costs if they're going to spend their money on dirty martinis and pomme frites.
I'm sure you've noticed this already, but life is expensive. And I mean that above and beyond inflation. Because our economy relies on consumption, not only do prices go up, but our idea of what's "enough" goes up every year, too. And as more consumer services are turned into consumer labor, the amount of time we spend buying the stuff leaders claim "supports the economy" goes up, too. Think self-checkouts, automated customer service, even self-service returns.
It baffles me that a serious economist (or any social scientist) would begin an analysis without noting how financial conditions might influence the data—not to mention how financial conditions intersect with gender, race, immigration status, and education level. And how can one blame economic shifts on introverts when there isn't a single cross-tabulation of data that separates introverts from extroverts?
Anyhow, any analysis that doesn't follow where the money questions lead is probably bullshit.
🚩 Red Flag: Using false equivalencies
I've already covered a number of false equivalencies in Schrager's analysis: socializing doesn't always mean "going out," spending more time online doesn't always mean having a less fulfilling social life, etc. But the false equivalency that really irks me is that of introversion with loneliness. It’s the specter haunting her whole argument. Even Favreau and Fisher fell into the trap of equating introversion and loneliness.
Americans, you may have heard, are lonely. That is a problem (if true). But introverts are not responsible for America’s loneliness epidemic. Surgeon General Murthy acknowledges that both introverts and extroverts suffer from loneliness (duh) while never suggesting that “going out” more is a workable solution to the problem. I’m sure that screen time and social media contribute something to Americans’ pervasive feelings of loneliness—but they're not solely responsible for the problem either. Loneliness is a structural problem that's felt (like so many structural problems) individually.
Our society isn't built to connect us. It's not built to help us find our people. From economic policy to local zoning statutes, from labor laws to gerrymandering, from Citizens United to Dobbs, we are enmeshed with cultural and legal technologies that work best when we are isolated and tasked with "personal responsibility."
When people really come together—to organize for Palestine, for Black Lives Matter, for Occupy, for climate justice, for sex workers, for LGBTQIA+ youth—economists like Schrager or the folks who read Bloomberg don't celebrate our social cohesion. They worry about the impact on businesses. They find new enemies to mobilize their capital against. They spot new opportunities to develop or market products.
Bullshit is ‘panoramic rather than particular’
Bullshit, as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argued, exists for a purpose.
[The bullshitter] is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well.
Bullshit can be based on facts, declared Frankfurt. The real deception is in the agenda—the broader program the bullshitter has embarked on: "His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to."
Ultimately, this is why "The Introverts Have Taken Over the US Economy" is bullshit. It's an opinion column in Bloomberg (a publication with a pro-business agenda) by an economist at a think tank focused on economic freedom (i.e., pro-business). The agenda is clear once you notice the bullshit: People who are content to stay home and read a book or call it a night early to get in a full night's sleep or drink soda without the gin to avoid a hangover the next day are bad for business. They might be less exploitable workers. They might be less gullible consumers.
Or, as activist and writer Astra Taylor put it in her book The Age of Insecurity:
Capitalism thrives on bad feelings, on the knowledge that contented people buy less—an insight the old American trade magazine Printers’ Ink stated bluntly: “Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones.” Consumer society thus capitalizes on the very insecurities it produces, which it then prods and perpetuates, making us all insecure by design.
It's not the introverts that Bloomberg and economists like Schrager are afraid of.
It's people who don't need their bullshit to be happy.
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Full disclosure: I prefer to eat at or before 5:30 p.m. I was raised by a woman who grew up on a farm. I learned to delay dinner until 8 or 9 p.m. when I first met Sean, but by “delay,” I really mean that I learned to eat two dinners. I neither understand what “normal” people do between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. if it’s not eating dinner nor do I understand how they get enough sleep or wake up without heartburn every morning.