The False Personality Binary
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Do you prefer one-on-one conversations, like to read books, and quake at the idea of a party? You probably call yourself an introvert. On the other hand, if you thrive in crowds and thrive in social settings, you may check the ‘extrovert’ box on personality tests.
But the idea of introversion, coined by self-described introvert and Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, started with a different definition—one centered on where you get your energy. Does it come from your own thoughts and inwardness? The term introvert comes from the Latin intro, or “inward,” and vertere, meaning “to turn.” Conversely, the word extrovert (“outward turning”) describes being energized by things happening outside of yourself.
Jung’s idea took off, and many of us eagerly categorize ourselves into personality “types.” But in recent decades, psychologists have developed an even more nuanced understanding of introversion—one that may make the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” irrelevant.
Introvert is the last word in this mind-focused season of the podcast Science Diction. Radio producer Christie Taylor talks to Science Diction producer and host Johanna Mayer about the origin of the term, and how our understanding of personality has matured in the 100 years since Jung’s inward-turning revelation.
Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.
IRA FLATOW: There’s no doubt that the pandemic changed the way we socialize. One day, a year ago in March, we just weren’t going places to meet our friends. One group of people though that may have mixed feelings about that big change, introverts. Earlier this week, two of Science Friday’s many self-identified introverts, radio producer Christie Taylor, science fiction host Johanna Mayer had a conversation about this misunderstood personality trait. It’s the subject of our latest episode of Science Diction.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hey, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So this is really weird, but I don’t think that you and I have talked one on one with our actual voices in something like six months. How did that happen?
JOHANNA MAYER: Well, Christie, if you haven’t heard, there’s been a global pandemic. And also I feel like it’s because we don’t overlap so much on our teams at Science Friday. So when we do see each other in meetings, it’s in like a 20 person Zoom call. And I am physically unable to speak in those calls.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It’s so weird. Because you know all those memes that came out at the beginning of the lockdown measures last year about quarantines and introverts?
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh, yeah. The ones that were basically like, welcome to our world of staying home all the time, extroverts. Let us introverts show you the way.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We have the compendium of knowledge that you need to get through this.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I mean, it’s true that I would struggle to go to parties before lockdown. But I can’t actually say that it’s been easy in lockdown. I’m lonely. I’m frustrated.
I used to do a lot of things out in the world, even as an introvert. And you know, Zoom, it turns out, is the worst way to spend close one-on-one time with people, even though I love it.
JOHANNA MAYER: I never want to be on another Zoom call in my entire life.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I mean, we have video off, I should note, right now, even.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes. Thank God, an introvert stream. It’s almost like introversion is more complicated than pop culture memes could ever understand.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So Yohanna, I know you’ve been looking at brain things over at Science Diction this season. And your latest episode is actually all about introverts. So can you help us out here in bringing some nuance to this memable personality trait?
JOHANNA MAYER: I can. And shout out to Chris Egusa, who researched and wrote this episode. But we took a look at where the word “introvert” comes from and why introversion just doesn’t really work the way that most of us think.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Most of us think the classic introvert is quiet. They’re a bookworm.
JOHANNA MAYER: Maybe awkward at large gatherings, probably prefers one-on-one interaction to big parties, the opposite of, essentially, a boisterous, friendly extrovert.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So these archetypes obviously came from somewhere. It’s not like we all just innately understand when we’re born that there are two different kinds of people in the world.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. It’s really interesting. It actually goes back, like, 100 years to when these two famous psychologists had a falling out in their friendship. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, they had this really intense personal and professional relationship. Cracks begin to surface. And they eventually had this big falling out.
Freud essentially told Jung, like, I never want to talk to you again. And Jung was completely bereft and was just trying to figure out how two people could look at a situation and come to completely different conclusions about what went wrong. And that’s what led him into his investigation into personality types. And he actually wrote a book called Psychological Types. And that’s where he popularized the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.”
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What do the words mean themselves? How do you translate them?
JOHANNA MAYER: Well, you can kind of break it down. So “intro” means inward, or to the inside. And “vertare” means to turn. So together, they mean to turn inward. And the opposite, of course, is extrovert, which is to turn outward.
Jung thought that it was really a matter of energy, like where it’s directed and where it comes from. So the inward facing introvert gets their energy from thoughts, ideas, introspection, whereas the outward facing extrovert gets more of their energy from people and the world around them. If you want to break those down into stereotypes, the introverts would be considered aloof and dull and the extroverts would be considered superficial and insincere.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right. And so 100 years later, we’re still using introvert and extrovert to describe ourselves. But what do scientists see in the way that we’re sorting ourselves into personality types? Is there something there?
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh, man. We love to categorize ourselves. It is so satisfying and so fun to take personality quizzes online. Really what psychologists are saying is that it’s much more accurate to think about personality in terms of traits rather than types.
We talked to Dan McAdams. He’s a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Here’s what he had to say about that.
DAN MCADAMS: Personality doesn’t come in types. So let’s think of height as a trait. Some people are taller than others. But types basically are like saying, OK, we got two kinds of people out there, tall people and short people. And that’s it.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: OK. So we have a spectrum of height. So does that mean we have a spectrum of introversion?
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes. Absolutely. So most personality tests are basically junk science. But there is one personality test that has that more nuanced view of the spectrum. And that is kind of backed by research.
And it says that there’s actually something to introversion and extroversion specifically. So it has to do with something called the lexical hypothesis. And basically, if a personality trait is important enough, we’re eventually going to come up with a word to describe it.
So psychologists literally combed through the dictionary. And they came up with this initial list of 18,000 words that could be used to describe personality. And so over the decades, they keep condensing it and condensing it. The list gets whittled down and confirmed across several cultures and languages.
And in the 1980s, they landed on five broad personality traits. And they were called the Big Five. And one of those traits that made it onto that list was introversion.
And the thing about the Big Five personality test is that when you take it, it doesn’t categorize you into a type. It gives you a score of where you fall on the spectrum of a certain trait.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: This is Science Friday. I’m Christie Taylor. All right. The label isn’t necessarily as helpful because I could be 75% introvert, as opposed to, like, a introvert. So anything real at all going on here?
JOHANNA MAYER: Totally. So yeah, it’s probably more accurate to refer to yourself as someone who falls more towards the introverted end of the introversion-extroverted spectrum. But to answer your question, yes, there are real differences in what’s going on in the brains of introverts and extroverts.
And it really comes down to dopamine. It’s commonly called the chemical of pleasure. More accurately, it could be described as the chemical of desire.
Dopamine motivates us to pursue rewards, things like food, or sex, or praise. Here’s Dan McAdams again.
DAN MCADAMS: It turns out to be mainly that extroversion is about reward seeking, the activity of dopamine in the brain. It seems to go into overdrive for extroverts when they are pursuing something that they really want.
JOHANNA MAYER: So the idea is that when we anticipate these rewards, dopamine just floods our brains and makes us more motivated to take risks, more alert, more talkative, more physically extroverted. And I mean that’s true for both introverts and extroverts. But it’s especially true for extroverts.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So there’s a chemistry component that we can measure in people’s brains. That’s amazing. Does this mean there’s also, like, if people aren’t seeking rewards because they’re introverted, they’re not getting rewards, so they’re not as happy?
JOHANNA MAYER: That’s a really interesting question. Because research shows that extroverts do tend to be happier. But as always, it’s a little more nuanced than that.
Because it’s not that introverts are sad or moping around all the time. It’s just that introverts emotions tend to be more muted. If an extrovert is feeling elated over something, an introvert might just feel satisfied.
You can think of dopamine as sort of like a car engine. So in extroverts, it’s, like, revving all the time. And in introverts, it’s more just kind of, like, a slow and steady hum, idling.
And what’s really wild is that there was a study from 2019 that found that when introverts forced themselves to act more extroverted, the introverts reported feeling happier, too. Although another very similar study from the same year found that the introverts actually felt worse overall in the long term. So the jury’s still out on that one.
But you know, personality traits can change quite a bit over people’s lives. But the thing about introversion and extroversion is that it’s pretty much the most stable one.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I don’t know that I want to be revving like a car engine all the time, anyway. I like being satisfied.
JOHANNA MAYER: I’m happy with my hum. Yeah. I’m very happy with my hum.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much, Johanna, for coming by to explain this. This has been really helpful. I feel like I at least understand who I am a little bit better.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. Thank you, Christie. And if you want to learn more, you can check out the full introvert episode of Science Diction, which was written and produced by Chris Egusa, along with a ton of other science stories behind our words. You can just subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Johanna Mayer is producer and host of the Science Diction podcast. And full transparency, two introverts having a conversation didn’t sound quite as smooth as this until editing. Merp, berb, berb, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba. Ira’s back with the credits.
Now I’m obsessing over how to say hey Johanna normally. Eh. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.