Introverts—thought to make up at least one-third of the population—have been having a moment in the spotlight, thanks in large part to the work of ‘quiet revolutionary’ Susan Cain via her best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and subsequent TED talk.
In addition to increasing appreciation of the contributions of introverts, many commonly-held perceptions about the label itself are being debunked. Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, creators of the Myers-Briggs personality test, led us to believe that extraverts gain energy from social interaction, while introverts find it draining. While surprising to those of us who shudder at the thought of cocktail parties, research has shown that introverts actually enjoy the company of others just as much as extraverts. Love and belonging, after all, sit just above safety in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
Introversion turns out to be less about how much we enjoy social interaction and more about how our brains process stimulation. Work begun by psychologist Hans Eysenck in the late 1960s showed that people seek to balance their internal level of stimulation by controlling the sensory input coming in from the outside world. As Cain explains,
There’s a host of evidence that introverts are more sensitive than extraverts to various kinds of stimulation, from coffee to a loud bang to the dull roar of a networking event—and that introverts and extraverts often need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best.
The idea that extraverts make better leaders has also been disproven. Research led by Adam Grant at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania showed that extraverted and introverted executives are equally successful, just with different types of employees. Grant found that while a passive employee base does better with extraverted leaders, proactive employees excel with an introverted boss who allows them to run with their ideas.
The accuracy of the Myers-Briggs test itself—on which many people base their identification as introverts—has been coming under increasing scrutiny, both for the arbitrary nature of its categories and the instability of results, with some research showing a different output more than half of the time when people retake the test. It’s important to keep in mind that rather than constituting binary poles, introversion and extraversion fall on a spectrum, with the majority of us residing in the middle as ambiverts. And like all aspects of our personality, it’s not a fixed trait, but an inclination that can vary depending on circumstances.
Derived from the Latin intro (inward) + vertere (to turn), the word ‘introvert’ began to be used as a noun in a psychological context by Carl Jung. But Jung, on whose book Psychological Types Myers and Briggs based their ideas, did not himself believe in labelling individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his New Yorker piece on personality tests:
Jung didn’t believe that types were easily identifiable, and he didn’t believe that people could be permanently slotted into one category or another.
‘Every individual is an exception to the rule,’ he wrote; to ‘stick labels on people at first sight,’ in his view, was ‘nothing but a childish parlor game.’
While reflecting on personality types can help us maintain ‘optimal levels of arousal’ in psychological parlance, we should also endeavor to challenge ourselves to do things outside our comfort zone from time to time. Jung believed that we contain the seed of the opposite characteristic within our unconscious, and that it serves us to bring the unconscious trait into play when appropriate. So if your tendency is to retreat into yourself when unhappy, it might actually be in your interest to go out with friends when you long to stay home in your pajamas. Even if it means losing Introvert Bingo…