The Colorado shooting and the stigma of being a loner

Shooting suspect James Holmes in an undated photo.
(University of Colorado Denver)

Whenever there’s a horrific crime or misdeed, people who belong to one minority group or another can’t help hoping that the perpetrator isn’t one of their own. And if it is, they cringe, often feeling vaguely and irrationally embarrassed, and certain that this act reflects poorly on their entire group.

So it was on Friday, for me and my fellow introverts, when it was reported that James Holmes, the suspect in the almost inconceivable shooting at a midnight screening of the new Batman movie, is a loner.

There he was again, the introverted suspect, conjuring up stereotypical images of a quietly resentful misanthrope hunched over a pile of angry thoughts and lunatic plots in a dark room.

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It’s not easy to be a loner in our society; in fact, the loner is, in some ways, the antithesis of society, or social behavior, both words stemming from the Latin for “companion.” It makes some sense, then, for society to be a bit suspicious of the people who engage less in the whole “group” part of the social endeavor.

Depending on which experts you read, there might be some degrees of difference between the actual loner, who is sometimes defined as preferring his or her own company or having a dislike of being with others, and introverts, who are often described as being unable to take large groups in large doses. A party that energizes others will tend to be draining for an introvert, who needs alone time and who prefers socializing with one person or a small group. Or as my son used to say when, in second grade, he preferred daydreaming during recess to joining a group sport: “I need time for my imagination.” Of course, that didn’t keep his teacher from harboring concerns, until she saw that he was quite a happy kid.

Whichever way you separate the two groups, or put them together, introverts and/or loners -- who are estimated to make up about a quarter of the population (though there’s probably more of a continuum than one distinct type) -- tend to feel that others have a negative reaction to their particular style. And there is; just try an Internet search for either word linked with “stigma.” A smart book was published this year on the subject: “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

Yet there might also be something to the interpretations of psychologists, inevitable after such tragedies, who say that the socially isolated person might be more likely to harbor simmering resentment toward the rest of the group. In any case, when an extroverted person starts acting in antisocial ways, there are going to be more people around to notice it and do something about it before it can get out of control.


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There doesn’t really seem to be one single type of introvert. Some loners are far from socially isolated. Some like groups, but as an observer, not a participant. Others love to socialize, but with a small circle of very close friends. And yet others like to put on a “social face” and enjoy the same activities that more gregarious types do. It’s just that when they do, they’re likely to need a quiet respite afterward -- but not to build up a wall of antisocial feeling; more likely, it’s just time for their imagination.


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