Introvert Or Extrovert: Which One Are You?
The Debrief: Introverts and extroverts are talked about a lot right now but how do you know which one you are? What does it mean? And does it actually matter?
Illustration by Sarah Clifford
Think of an 'introvert' and images of an anti-social hermit will probably jump into your mind. A figure hunched over a book, locked away in the highest room of a lighthouse or some equally isolated place. When you think of an 'extrovert' you probs envisage a loud, yet successful go-getter, who is dripping with friend requests and party invites. Introverts have typically had a bad rep, that was it seems until 2012 when Susan Cain wrote her best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking with the purpose of shaking off this preconception of introverts and challenging the Western idea that extrovert = best (she calls this the 'Extrovert Ideal'). Her case studies of successful, powerful introverts are proof that introverts are not the 'lesser' in society. In fact, their potential power should be recognised and harnessed.
What is an introvert and an extrovert?
It was psychiatrist Carl Jung who, in the 1920s, noted a difference in personality types; amongst those the idea of an extrovert and an introvert, stating that: ‘Each person seems to be energized more by either the external world or the internal world’. The modern definition of the two terms is quite simple: whilst extroverts gain a lot of energy from being with other people, introverts experience the opposite – being with others drains their energy.
What is the difference between an introvert and an extrovert?
There are many common misconceptions when it comes to introverts and extroverts but what it comes down to, is the type of situation that you energises you. Introverts aren't loners who don't want human contact, rather they require less of this social stimulation to gain their energy meaning large and hectic social situations can be a huge drain.
Psychologist Dr Max Blumberg explained this to me in terms of brain function. ‘Let’s say that your brain needs to be at 50% dopamine (the neurotransmitter that controls brain reward and pleasure) in order for you to function optimally. In your brain you have the reticular activation system and that determines the amount of stimulation you need to get the optimum levels of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine,’ he told me. ‘So by that example, introverts have got highly active reticular activation systems: they’re on the go all the time, one little bit more of stimulation and they’re over the 50% optimum. Whereas extroverts have really lazy reticular activation systems so they need a huge kick to get going like meeting other people and talking.’
In other words, it's harder for them to reach that optimal level, so it will take more for them to gain the energy they need, explaining why they prefer highly interactive and busy situations. This difference in reaction to external stimuli shows an actual biological difference between introverts and extroverts, although there is of course the argument of whether the brain works this way because they are an introvert/extrovert, or they’re an introvert/extrovert because their brain works that way.
Over the years, numerous studies have proven this difference in brain functions. One in 2012 found that introverts tended to have larger, thicker grey matter in their prefrontal cortex (this part of the brain is linked to abstract thought and decision-making) than extroverts. The researchers believed this could explain an introverts tendancy to create space and take time over a decision whilst extroverts are impulsive and take more risks. In 2005 a study showed that extroverts have more active dopamine systems which psychologist Hans Eysenck had suggested in the 1960s showing again that it takes more for extroverts to become stimulated and another in 2013 backed this up by showing that they have a stronger dopamine response to rewards, encouraging further extroverted behaviour.
Perhaps the most interesting was a study which found that introverts and extroverts don't recognise human faces in the same way, with introverts actually unable to distinguish between inanimate objects and a human, helping to explain the different ways in socialising.
Can you be an introvert and extrovert?
The short answer to this, is no. Introversion and extroversion can be thought of in terms of a scale – at either end are the extremes and everyone will fall somewhere on this spectrum. Whilst not all people will be an absolute and total extrovert, it’s about figuring out what you are most of the time. ‘There are articles that ask “Are you an extroverted introvert or an introverted extrovert?” and it sounds nice but there’s very little evidence for that,’ Dr Blumberg told me. ‘What is true is that being an extrovert doesn’t mean that they want to be with people all the time because you don’t need energy all the time. Similarly introverts do need some energy from people and will want some company, but that doesn’t mean you’re an extrovert.’
Just to confuse things, there's apparently a third catergory: the ambivert. This is someone who falls in the middle and sees parts of themselves in both the characteristics of extroverts and introverts and will use the appropriate skills in the appropriate situations.
Can an introvert become an extrovert and vice versa?
What these biological differences mean is that it’s extremely difficult to change what you are, because being an extrovert or an introvert is a personality trait. ‘There are five personality traits in people that don’t change – this is called the Five Factor Model in psychology. In most people these things are stable from the age of six to 60; the only things that change these things are life changing events like a horrible accident or drugs. Extroversion and introversion is one of these,’ Dr Blumberg explained. And it’s not actually necessary to change who you are; it’s about changing your environment to suit you instead, which is why it’s important to identify where you fall.
The Quiet Revolution, which Cain co-founded and whose mission is to ‘unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all' has a short test to give you a rough idea of where you fall (I actually got 'ambivert') but there are also longer, more thorough versions like on Psychology Today.
Why does being an introvert or an extrovert matter?
It might not seem a big deal to decipher 'what you are', but Dr Blumberg insists that it is. ‘You can waste years of your life not knowing and feel a sense of dissatisfaction: you often feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed,’ he explains. ‘If you knew [whether you were an introvert or an extrovert] and you changed your environment, it makes an instant change and impact all areas of your life.’
This isn’t just about your physical environment either, although that’s a large part: ‘If you’re an introvert you’ve got to be very careful to choose an environment that isn’t over stimulating so don’t work in an open plan office if you can help it. If you’re an extrovert don’t work from home if you can help it; go work in a place where there’s lots of other people,’ he told me.
What makes up your environment is what's actually in it too, like your romantic relationships. ‘If you need a lot of silence, you don’t want to go out with an extrovert. People are inevitably attracted to the opposite of what they are in extroversion and introversion. But it’s also the thing that breaks the relationship up eventually.’ Friendships though, allow for a bit more flexibility in this part, because you can come and go from them; you might have one friend who’s an extrovert, but that’s OK because you only see her once a month which keeps the balance.
Discovering whether you're an introvert, an extrovert or even an ambivert is not about assigning yourself to one 'group' and alienating yourself from another. It's far more positive than that. Not only is it interesting; it can actually help shape your life then leading, in theory, to a more fulfilling one. And for all the introverts out there who have felt that their introversion is more of a curse than a blessing, this one's for you.
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