Introversion and extroversion

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.


  1. Corvus illustris says

    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.

    There are a lot of us* like this in the hard/exact sciences; it is difficult to lecture effectively, or even talk back-and-forth at an office blackboard, without adopting certain “extroversive” behaviors. But it’s a little unnatural. Same subject: this line of work is full of people with “Asperger’s” traits, including people who are classified as having the syndrome but also many other people. Unfortunately, US culture encourages extroverted conformity, as your WSJ reference illustrates.

    *not everybody! A certain co-author comes to mind.

  2. unbound says

    I agree completely. I am perfectly capable of performing in large groups, and I do indeed enjoy those times as much as anything I do alone. But I truly desire the downtime of being by myself. And that desire is usually the big conflict in my life as I spend all day at work interacting with many people, and, given the choice of going home to be with my family (which will be alone for much of it as my children are older and daddy isn’t that interesting anymore) or hanging out at a social event, I really need that time alone / with my family.

    However, this does put me at a disadvantage at my level. The reality is that the socialites / extraverts get more facetime with senior executives. The quality of my work keeps me from falling to the bottom of the pile, but I would certainly have progressed further and faster as an extravert.

    At the end of the day, we do have to acknowledge our limitations and accept the good and the bad that comes with it. Even though I know I would be further professionally as an extravert, life remains good.

  3. Mano Singham says

    In her book, Cain describes cases of family stress where introverts who are exhausted by their work demands of interacting with people come home and want to recharge by reading or some other solitary activity and thus seem to be distancing themselves from their families, when they are not really.

  4. rory says

    That cartoon says it beautifully. I don’t want to be rude to anyone, but when people in my office try to make small talk with me it’s incredibly draining–like trying to hold up a conversation in a language I don’t speak very well. I don’t mind interacting when there’s a reason for it, but beyond that it just sucks the life out of me.

  5. says

    I’m also one of those introverts who acts like an extrovert. I’ve had to work really hard at it over the years and it’s a skill that needs constant practice, but at this point I enjoy going out, meeting new people, trying new things and being adventurous, making spur of the moment decisions, etc., but at the end of it all, it can be tiring, and I need to retreat to my hamster ball and recharge. I can give an awesome presentation on something I created, say at work or school, but I need my introvert time to create the awesome thing, and so become kind of hostile when I’m in the middle of something and people keep bugging me.

    Part of it may be wanting no one to see my flawed work in progress. When it’s done, I’d be happy to show it to you, but if you ask me what I’m doing while I’m doing it, I will want to rip your head off.

    Conversely, while I’m perfectly happy to be alone and work on something–write, play music, build software, whatever–I have to have an audience to show it off to at the end. I don’t want to create something that I’ll never be acknowledged for. That might be the extrovert in me coming out.

    FWIW, for the past four years or so, I’ve consistently score almost exactly 50/50 on the E/I portion of any Meyers-Briggs test I’ve taken, though I still identify as an introvert.

  6. CaitieCat says

    Yay. Another study purporting to talk about all of us that draws from a study of a whole bunch of college students.

    All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. All college students are humans, but not all humans are college students. If researchers want something to be generally applicable, they need to study a much broader part of the population.

  7. CaitieCat says

    Yeah, that family thing. My father, mother, and sister are all huge extroverts, and I’m rather not. None of them ever understood that, couldn’t figure why i’d rather spend time after school reading in my room than playing a loud game with the family or something. They simply could not imagine that this was what made me happy; they had to see it through their own eyes, as something weird and unhappiness-related.

  8. invivoMark says

    I have always hated the introvert/extrovert distinction! I know several people who straddle that distinction just fine – myself included. I resent being classified as an introvert, yet that’s invariably how I get described.

    I’m a social person. I love being out among people, whether it’s crowds or a small group of friends. I can be social endlessly, and never have to “recharge.”

    Yet, I also enjoy being alone, and I can spend several days on my own and be satisfied. I have several hobbies I work on on my own. Socially, I’m quiet enough, particularly around people I don’t know well, that I am slow to make friends and open up to people. So I get classified as an introvert. But I’ve never felt like that really described me.

    Can’t a person be both?

  9. MNb says

    The link you gave explicitely makes clear that introvert and extrovert is a continuous line and aren’t discrete boxes. This is important when dealing with introvert people. As a teacher I have to when kids don’t defend their interests (like being shy if they don’t understand something). It’s counterproductive and even dangerous to try to pull them over from one to the other. My focus is always on gradual change, little steps. That increases the success rate, which decreases the risks involved.
    Also remember: good parties don’t only need extravert talkative people. They also need good listeners.

    “I like those periods to be followed by time to myself”
    This has not so much to do with you being introverted, but according to that link with agreeableness. I am generally an extravert, but also quite antisocial like you. My female counterpart is introvert, but scores high on agreeableness. On average she enjoys the company of other people much more than I do. She just never wants to be the centre of the party. That’s not a problem for me.

  10. left0ver1under says

    I’m not saying this is the case for all extroverts and introverts, but:

    One of the most obvious differences between the two is that extroverts talk just to be heard, while introverts talk to say something. And sometimes what is called “extroversion” is actually attention seeking, a craving to be the centre of others’ attention.

    On top of that, I don’t buy into binary thinking. People aren’t exclusively extroverted or introverted anymore than people are exclusively straight or gay. There are undoubtedly going to be different shades of behaviour, different willingness to be extroverted or introverted depending on the situation (e.g. a person who loves talking to a crowd whose voice cracks from nervousness when trying to sing).

  11. jamessweet says

    Yeah, on the MBTI test (to be taken with a shaker full of salt, itself, of course!) I tend to score right down the middle on the E/I spectrum. Like you, I can be very extroverted and really “take control of a room” even, but I tend to crave alone time to recharge.

  12. doublereed says

    I get annoyed at such classifications. While there are patterns that are fun to categorize, I feel like it’s entirely dependent on context. I feel introverted in some contexts, and extroverted in others. And I don’t think that’s particularly unique. Humans are extraordinarily context sensitive.

  13. Corvus illustris says

    If your anonym refers to something you use as a means to musical expression, it would be interesting to know whether you feel that making music in public performance taught you extraversion or simply let you express it.

  14. leftygomez says

    What’s the difference between an introverted mathematician and an extroverted mathematician?

    The introvert looks down at his shoes when he speaks to you. The extrovert looks at your shoes.

    Disclosure: I’m a math professor, mostly introverted except when I’m not (teaching, performing music, emceeing at parties).

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