Of the ‘Big Five’ dimensions that psychologists use to classify people’s personality traits (Openness v. Closed mindedness; Conscientiousness v. Disorganized; Extroversion v. Introversion; Agreeableness v. Disagreeableness; Neuroticism v. Calmness), the extrovert/introvert dimension probably draws the most attention and interest, perhaps because we think it is the easiest to identify in others and identify with ourselves.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) Susan Cain takes up the cause of introverts who, she says, are disadvantaged in American culture which seems to see value extroverts a lot more and sees introversion as a kind of fault to be fixed. She says that in reality introverts bring a lot of strengths that society needs to better understand and pay attention to. She lists the characteristics of each type (p.269):
Introverts: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.
Extroverts: ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight.
The Wall Street Journal had an article recently ago that seemed to add to the perception that being an extrovert was better than being an introvert. Titled How an Introvert Can Be Happier: Act Like an Extrovert, it reported on a set of studies and, as is often the case, the content of the article and the research is more subtle than the headline suggests.
A series of studies, which included more than 600 college students, found that introverts misjudge how they would feel after acting extroverted. They often predicted feelings of anxiety and embarrassment, which never transpired.
“Introverts kind of underestimate how much fun it will be to act extroverted,” said Dr. Zelenski. “You don’t think you want to go to a party and then go and have a great time.”
It is true that when introverts force themselves to be a little extroverted, they take risks that they might have otherwise avoided and can feel satisfied when they successfully pull it off. I often feel reluctant to go to an event that I have promised to attend and wish I could beg off at the last minute. But my sense of obligation always forces me to go and I often end up having a good time and pleased that I went.
I tend to be a bit wary of these psychological classification schemes that put people in well-demarcated boxes because all of us are more complex and much of our behavior depends on the situation and context. Cain talks about ‘Free Trait Theory’ which she summarizes as, “We are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits – introversion, for example – but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects”. (p. 209)
The value of these classification schemes lies not in their prescriptive qualities but in the opportunity they afford for each of us to reflect on why we behave the way we do. Like most introverts, I can adopt an extrovert-type personality when needed and can even enjoy myself in that role for a short time. But like a true introvert, I like those periods to be followed by time to myself where I can be alone with my thoughts. After teaching a class or attending a meeting or talking with someone, even if I had a good time and was actively engaged, it is delightful to go back to the quiet and solitude of my office. This cartoon by Schroeder Jones captures this particular dimension of introversion.