Beyond the Introvert-Extravert Divide

Over at New York Magazine, Drake Baer has been challenging the introvert-extravert dichotomy with vigor. “‘Introvert or Extrovert’ Is the Wrong Way to Define Your Identity,” declares one October article; an article from July has a similarly bold title (“Why Declaring ‘I’m an Introvert!’ Limits Your Life“). In both articles, and in some earlier pieces, Baer emphasizes the complexity of personality and the influence of occupation and context. I would go even farther than he does—for instance, I am skeptical of the Big Five model of personality—but I applaud his boldness and subtlety.

The introvert issue has been so overhyped that it swept other discussions into its hot air. It created a “groupthink” of its own. In 2012, a few months after Republic of Noise came out, I was interviewed for an Education Week article on introverts in the classroom (as was Susan Cain). When speaking with Sarah Sparks, I emphasized the distinction between solitude and introversion. Solitude is essential to education (in some way and in some form) regardless of one’s personality type. Instead of trying to make the classroom amenable to introverts (who are a highly diverse bunch, with a wide range of preferences and needs), pay attention to the subject matter. It just isn’t true that “introverts” prefer online discussion to class discussion. If you are approaching the subject keenly, your class discussion will not be dominated by table-thumping loudmouths anyway. People will have to think, because there will be something to think about. Of course you should pay attention to the students—to their ideas and unique qualities, not their type.

But these points were left out of the article;  Sparks and other reporters continued to present issues in terms of introverts and extraverts. I have wondered why. It seems part of our country’s tendency toward polarization. It isn’t so far removed, in other words, from the climate of the election. It is all too easy to identify yourself with an oppressed group (in this case the introverts) and let someone else tell you who  you are and what you need. Someone shows up who seems to tell your story, explains how you and your kind have been mistreated, and promises a revolution.

But maybe this isn’t quite your story; maybe your personal oppression (to the extent that it exists) comes from many places, including the self; maybe liberation lies not in an uprising of your personality type but in good independent thought. I don’t mean that one should reject all alliances, but no alliance should demand a reduction of the mind or soul. There should be room to challenge not only the dominant train of thought but its underlying suppositions. There should be room to say, “this isn’t quite right.”

I see Baer’s articles as a promising step in that direction. A shout-out to Melissa Dahl too.

Note: I originally mistitled the first Baer article; the error is now fixed. Also I changed “Big Five theory” to “Big Five model”; stay tuned for more on this.) I made a few minor edits later on.

Your Personality, Your Noise

There are far too many unsupported and overhyped statements about what “science tells us” about introverts and extraverts. This distorts the dialogue and affects school and workplace policy. I take up this subject both because it overlaps with some of my interests and because it bears examination. “Science tells us” statements have popular appeal, a big market, and numerous high-profile outlets. They need vigorous questioning.

When it comes to introversion and extraversion, the findings are far less definite than pundits claim. Any blanket statement about introverts and extraverts needs unblanketing. (I see no need to call anyone an introvert or extravert in the first place, but that’s another matter.)

Here is an example. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Susan Cain says,

And just to give you kind of a concrete illustration of [how introverts and extraverts work differently], there’s this fascinating study that was done by the psychologist Russell Geen, where he gave math problem [sic] to introverts and extroverts to solve with varying levels of background noise. And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.

I can’t find that study anywhere, but the statement alone contains some problems, which I’ll lay out in just a moment. I did find Geen’s 1984 study “Preferred Stimulation Levels in Introverts and Extraverts” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 46, no. 6), and I found it precise and cautious in its wording.

This study consisted of two experiments. Subjects (all male) were selected from the upper and lower 25 percent of the Extraversion scale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. They were undergraduates enrolled in psychology classes.

For the first experiment (which involved 30 extraverts and 30 introverts), Geen sought to determine whether extraverts and introverts, given the freedom to choose a noise level (other than zero), would differ in their choices, and whether such freedom of choice would equalize their arousal levels. There was a “choice” condition and two control conditions: one where the subject was given the noise level chosen by another (“yoked”) subject with the same personality type, and another where the noise level was selected by the experimenter. The subjects took this test one at a time. After selecting their noise level (or having it selected for them), they had to  wait two minutes. Then the projector was turned on, and they worked to complete a paired-associates learning task. The learning task ended when they completed two successive errorless trials. If, after twelve trials, they had not achieved this, the procedure was terminated.

The second experiment had more subjects (40 extraverts and 40 introverts) and a slightly different approach. This time, in addition to selecting their optimal noise level, introverts indicated the lowest acceptable noise level, and extraverts the highest. This established the four intensity levels used in the study. There was only one control condition: where the experimenter chose the noise level for the subject. (The “yoked” condition was eliminated because, in the first experiment, its results did not differ from those of the choice condition.) Otherwise this experiment followed the same procedures as the first.

I will focus on the results of the second experiment (because I have a bit more to say) and because, in Geen’s words, it provided “a replication and extension of the first.” With respect to pulse rate, something interesting came up: introverts and extraverts did not differ in pulse when they had chosen their noise level. When subjected to moderate noise, introverts were more aroused (i.e., had a higher pulse rate) than extraverts, but at the extreme noise levels (high and low), their rates did not differ from each other. This, right away, casts doubt on the blanket assertion that introverts are more sensitive to stimuli than extraverts. The statement needs careful qualification and questioning.

When it came to the task, introverts and extraverts performed equally well at their chosen noise levels. When subjected to superoptimal noise levels, both introverts and extraverts did significantly worse. When subjected to suboptimal noise levels, extraverts did significantly worse, but introverts did not (or they did worse, but not significantly).

This is interesting (and again, carefully thought out and presented), but I see a few caveats here. (And I haven’t forgotten about the Cain quote; I’ll come back to it in a minute.)

First, there are problems with selecting the top and bottom 25 percent on the extravert scale; your subjects are already at the extremes. How much of this applies to a full population is uncertain. That said, if you didn’t do that, you’d probably end up with so much noise (in the data) that you couldn’t draw any conclusions.

Second, I wonder to what degree the Eysenck Personality Inventory already relates to noise tolerance. That is, are these subjects defined as introverts/extraverts partly on the basis of their reported tolerance of noise? That would make the experiment somewhat redundant.

Third, I wonder to what extent the particular kind of noise influenced the results. (These were one-second bursts of white noise, with a mean of ten seconds between bursts.) I can imagine the high levels being particularly jarring (to anyone), and the low levels annoying (that pesky sound you can’t get rid of).

There are still more open questions; to begin to address them, I would need more statistical  knowledge and access to the raw data. To his credit, Geen does not draw rash conclusions from this study; at the end, he offers possible implications and describes the work that still needs to be done.

So I come back to the Cain quote, in particular: “And he found that the introverts better [sic] when the noise was lower, and the extroverts did better when the noise was higher.”

She could not have been talking about this study, because that was not the finding. There must be another  study that I haven’t located yet. Even so, a person making such a statement should specify the following:

  1. Which study is this? Give identifying information.
  2. How were the introverts and extraverts selected and defined?
  3. What kind of noise was used?
  4. What were the math problems, and what do you mean by “did better”?
  5. Was there any complexity/contradiction to the findings?
  6. Did the author bring up any caveats (and do you see any)?

That’s a lot, I know, and in an interview it might not be realistic. But that’s only scratching the surface; an expert should be able to do things I myself can’t do: for instance, explain the methods used for interpreting the raw data.

What I see instead (and not just from Cain by any means) is a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate the results of studies, and to do so again and again.

Some of these studies are interesting and valuable. Others are bunk. Still others are works in progress. All of them have limitations, but when taken skeptically and cautiously, they can help us reach greater understanding.

The implications? I see no problem with the idea that different people work well at different noise levels. But reducing the matter to “introverts” and “extraverts” is unnecessary and unfounded. Much depends on the individual, the context, the particular task, and the type of noise. There are situations that call for quiet, situations that call for noise, and a range in between. While a workplace should probably establish basic quiet (so that the noise doesn’t get out of hand), people can learn how to handle both quiet and noise in reasonable degrees.

Note: I made a few minor revisions after posting the piece–and then made a few more a year later. Also, Science of Us (New York Magazine) has started challenging some of the pop-psychology assertions about introversion and extraversion. (Here’s another piece on the topic.)

Introversion: Pro-Idea, Anti-Noise, or Something Else?

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Over the past few years I have heard much discussion of introversion and extraversion but little agreement about what they are. In fact, I have seen multiple implicit definitions of introversion within the same article or discussion.

It would not matter much, except that people in power are starting to say, “introverts are this,” “introverts are that,” “introverts need this,” “introverts need that.” Interior designers, engineers, and consultants have been creating “Quiet Spaces” in workplaces. Schools have undergone training to become more introvert-friendly. These initiatives may hold some good but need vigorous (and rigorous) questioning.

Definitions, by definition, make all the difference. It makes little sense to discuss what has been discovered about introverts, unless you mean something specific by the term “introvert.” State your initial definition, explain why you have chosen it over other possibilities, and proceed from there.

In a 2014 article in Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman gives a sampling of the many floating definitions of introversion. They run the gamut and then some. He then reveals that psychologists have put forth a model of four types of introversion: social (where you like to be alone or spend time with a few close friends), thinking (where you pay close and continual attention to your own thoughts and feelings), anxious (characterized by self-consciousness and shyness), and restrained (where you tend to think before you act). He then offers a quiz to help you find out which kind you are.

Even there, I see many complications (which he acknowledges as well). To be a “thinking” introvert, must one primarily be interested in one’s own thoughts and feelings, or can one be absorbed in thinking about something else, such as music, a language, or a mathematical problem? The quiz presumes the former, but I object.

As for the other types, when I look at the questions, my response is often, “It depends.” The ambiguity does not bother me; I don’t feel a need to narrow myself down by type and subtype (on other people’s terms). But others are busy doing just that—not for me in particular, but for “introverts” at large.

So, for instance, “Quiet Spaces,” envisioned and designed by Susan Cain and others, exist to give introverts an environment that brings out their best. The intent here is good but the execution narrow. I would not want to work in one, and in this I am not alone. I don’t like the lounge-y feel, the glass walls all around (frosted, but still), the lack of bookshelves, or the colors. Give me a good old office with solid walls, a windowed door, an actual desk, a window to the outside, and plenty of shelves. Or, if space is lacking, just give me a cubicle and some quiet. Again, I see the good intentions but question the assumptions and aesthetic choices.

Nor can a workplace accommodate everyone. I am skeptical of attempts to identify employees’ personality types and tailor workplaces to them. Instead, find the structures that suit the situation at hand. Where the work calls for thinking, make room for it. Where it calls for discussion, create forums. Allow people to work alone, coming together when necessary. Also, let them treat the job as a job, not as an all-consuming career (unless they really want the latter). That way, they can pursue their interests in their own time.

What about schools? Attempts to create introvert-friendly classrooms may also rely on false or skewed assumptions. Some assume that introverts dread speaking to the whole class and prefer speaking to a partner (e.g., in a “think-pair-share” activity); this is not necessarily true, though it may be true for some. Sone count unequivocally as introverts yet thrive in class discussion, precisely because it is about something interesting. Sone dread the “think-pair-share” activity because of its “buzz” (so many people talking at once) and its tendency to water down the ideas before they reach the full forum.

Here too, one can reach students by paying attention to the subject matter. When the point of class discussion is to reach greater understanding (about a work of literature, a mathematical concept, or a philosophical idea), students may sit quietly and think, venture a tentative idea, or offer an insight. All of this contributes to the understanding. Lessons themselves can vary. One lesson might consist primarily of lecture, another of whole-class discussion, and another of a combination (or something different). In each case, students may participate in a variety of ways.

And what about the world outside of work and school? Here again, beware of constricting generalizations. I just read an article titled “Introverts Love Facebook, and Extroverts Hate It. Here’s Why.”How does the author justify such an assertion? Here we go:

Everything about Facebook serves the emotional and psychological needs of introverts. It gives them a place to socialize and chat with people they like, without having to deal with the elements of in-person dialogues that make them uncomfortable. It allows them to say their piece, without being interrupted, scowled at, or patronized.

What? Who says introverts are uncomfortable with in-person dialogues? There are those who vastly and vehemently prefer such dialogues to the groupy, chatty, like-y, Facebook-y stuff. I myself dislike Facebook precisely because it’s so social (in Hannah Arendt’s sense of the word). Unless you have a private chat, which tightens you with its tiny windows and bubbles, you have to accept group conversations,  which aren’t even conversations. I recognize the efficiency of Facebook (it helps you stay in touch with many people at once), but it can’t hold a candle to a letter, phone conversation, or conversation in person.

I resist the excessive tilt toward gregariousness, talk, quick answers, busyness, aggressiveness, and so forth. Yet I also resist the push to classify people, especially when the basic definitions are unclear. Personality research is fine, but those involved should acknowledge its questions and doubts, strive for precise language, and exercise caution around policy and products. It is sad to see “groupthink” arising around introversion, when introversion, like extraversion, holds so many variations and possibilities.

 

Note: I took the above photo at Anne Loftus Playground (around 8 a.m., before children and parents started arriving).

I revised this piece three times after posting it. Latest revision: October 26, 2017.