Most of us think we are either introverts or extroverts, but is that backed up by science?
As COVID-19 restrictions finally begin to lift, introverts may feel anxiety and extroverts may feel relief.
But, according to psychiatrist Carl Jung, who introduced the terms to psychology, there is actually no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert.
“Such a person would be in an insane asylum,” he said.
Most people are ambiverted, he said: extroverts-introverts hybrids.
But the two terms have stuck: From dating profiles to business coaching, extroverts and introverts are loud and proud.
The cliché extrovert is a social and confident person who draws his energy from others, while an introvert is the opposite: more of a homebody who recharges himself on his own.
So are there really introverts and extroverts, or is this a reductive pseudoscience on the complex and fluid subject of personality?
The pure introvert
Sunshine Coast resident Sandy Forster disagrees with Jung. The 62-year-old is not in a mental asylum; she runs a successful financial coaching business. And she believes she is a pure introvert for life.
“I never socialize,” she says, “I prefer to stay home, in my own thoughts. When I walk my dog, I say hello to dogs and ignore humans.”
Forster is so far up the introverted ladder, his daughter recently remarked, “You don’t have any friends.” “I thought to myself, is that such a bad thing?” ” she says.
Until the age of 15, when her next door neighbors greeted her, Forster was silent. “I would love an invisibility cloak so that I could just observe,” she said.
She even recently climbed a cliff to avoid speaking to an approaching acquaintance.
Unsurprisingly, Queensland’s relatively brief lockdowns weren’t too difficult for Forster, who believes introversion is in his DNA. “I didn’t understand why people hated confinement so much,” she said.
So, can a die-hard introvert ever change?
Nicholas Haslam of the University of Melbourne says it’s not inconceivable, but not easy either. “People don’t mature to become more or less outgoing as they become more at peace with themselves,” explains the psychology professor.
That rings with Forster, who says she sometimes adopts an outgoing cape when hosting business retreats for clients. “It’s like stepping out of my own body, becoming an actor,” she says. “It’s so exhausting, I have a migraine. The minute the workshops are over, I retire to recharge my batteries.”
Those who have changed
Corrina Lindby of Collinsville, central Queensland, had an equally introverted childhood – so much so that she didn’t even attend her prom.
“My mother should answer the questions that were put to me,” said the 57-year-old.
It seems to different worlds from the straightforward woman I’m talking to today. Part of that, however, she credits to Nurture: “After being ridiculed in school, it was a defense mechanism to say nothing and be in my own head.”
How did she go from being such an extreme introvert to being an extrovert?
“There came a time when I had to decide if I should continue to believe that I was actually an introvert,” she says. “I thought to myself, is this the legacy I want to leave my children? I wanted to be strong and confident and set an example for them.”
Counseling and her Christian faith also helped with the transition. “The Bible verse, ‘I can do anything with the strength of Christ with me’ has helped me,” she says.
Such “inner talk,” she says, can create self-fulfilling prophecies.
When Lindby became the breadwinner, she believes her husband went from extrovert to introvert by taking on the role of raising children.
“We used to go to church and other practitioners would quote ‘Unless the man provides for himself, he is less of a man,’” she said. “It hurt her confidence. If you say something to yourself enough, you believe it.”
Extroverts are happier
Extroverts tend to feel more positive emotions than introverts, according to Professor Haslam.
“The research has sought to find out why this doesn’t self-reinforce – in order to reap happiness, why don’t we all act more outgoing?” he says.
“Introverts can find this somewhat exhausting / inauthentic. It’s like going against gravity… No one really wants to become more introverted.”
Extrovert to introvert
But yoga teacher Nikki Tiedeman says she gladly did it. The 36-year-old from the central coast of New South Wales previously worked in sales.
“As a team leader you had to inspire others to be part of the very social culture of the workplace,” she says.
After thriving in her twenties, becoming a yoga teacher in her thirties transformed her. “Over time, it felt forced. I came to hate small discussions and large groups – you were never able to connect on a deeper level,” she says.
Yoga linked her to her introverted side: “I was conditioned to think that being an extrovert and having lots of friends would lead to fulfillment. I never asked if I was doing this because the company told me to do it.
When she stopped, she realized how uncomfortable large groups made her. “I now prefer to look inside at things that satisfy me,” she said.
“To recharge my batteries, I need time to think on my own. Surprisingly, the lockdown has gone well. As I get older, I become more in tune with what I want.”
Myers Briggs and the Dating
Whether or not you subscribe to the controversial Myers Briggs Personality Type Descriptors, they will likely have an impact on who dates you and who employs you.
Yet Jessica Alderson swears by it. She fell in love with an Australian and moved to Sydney in 2017 to be with him. When the relationship didn’t work out, she created her own dating site – So Synced – which uses an algorithm to match partners using Myers Briggs types.
“We match couples who have just the right amount of difference and similarity to create that spark,” she says.
Myers Briggs is used in many workplaces, including most of the military branches in the United States and England and 80 of the Fortune 100 companies, but it is controversial.
Several analyzes find the test ineffective. “Myers Briggs has a very bad reputation within academic psychology,” says Professor Haslam.
“The theory is based on a dog’s breakfast. She thinks humans belong to types, while research shows they don’t.”
While people often think types describe them well, it could be the Forer-Barnum effect, also used in horoscopes: when individuals believe that ambiguous personality descriptions apply specifically to them.
“Any label can limit your horizons,” says Professor Haslam. “A bad manager would only assign tasks on people’s personality tests.”
A new Binge documentary, Persona, reveals that Myers Briggs’ tests play on racist, sexist, and ableist tropes because the questions were designed by the white executive class.
“Without a doubt, introverts and extroverts exist on a certain scale,” says Professor Haslam. “Every personality psychologist over the past 100 years has recognized that – this corresponds to the big five [personality traits] theory: openness to experience, awareness, extroversion, friendliness and neuroticism. “
The problem comes, he says, when people see personality traits as fixed binaries rather than a continuum, constantly evolving: “This idea took root, that’s where you get your energy from, but [academic psychologists] wouldn’t talk about it like that. You don’t need to talk ambiverts if you value the continuum – most of us are in the middle. There is no more introvert extrovert than there is a short person or a short tall person. “
Carl Jung’s theory, according to Professor Haslam, was not scientific – but more recent studies have shown that about 40% of personality characteristics are inherited; the rest is experience and learned behavior.
He criticizes Susan Cain, the author of two books on introverts, for “romanticizing” them. “She gives them all of these extra attributes: being bookish and creative. They’re really not a part of introversion at all,” he says.
Melbourne-based psychologist Donna Cameron warns:
“Often times, when a person calls themselves introvert or extrovert, they risk playing these roles more than they really need to.”
Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist.