What "Introvert" and "Extrovert" Really Mean

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Baerbel Schmidt

Think about what an ideal evening for you might look like. Do you imagine yourself going out for dinner with a large group of friends, attending a concert, or going to a club? Or would you prefer to spend the evening catching up with a close friend or getting lost in a good book? Psychologists consider our responses to questions such as these out levels of introversion and extroversion: personality traits that relate to our preferences for how we interact with others.

Below, we'll discuss what introversion and extroversion are and how they impact our well-being. 

The Five-Factor Model 

Introversion and extroversion have been the subject of psychological theories for decades. Today, psychologists who study personality often see introversion and extroversion as part of what is known as the five-factor model of personality. According to this theory, people's personalities can be described based on their levels of five personality traits: extroversion (of which introversion is the opposite), agreeableness (altruism and concern for others), conscientiousness (how organized and responsible someone is), neuroticism (how much someone experiences negative emotions), and openness to experience (which includes traits such as imagination and curiosity). In this theory, personality traits range along a spectrum—for example, you might be more extroverted, more introverted, or somewhere in-between.

If you're interested in learning about your personality traits in the five-factor model, you can take this short, ten-question quiz.

Psychologists who use the five-factor model see the trait of extroversion as having multiple components. Those who are more extroverted tend to be more social, more talkative, more assertive, more likely to seek out excitement, and are thought to experience more positive emotions.

People who are more introverted, on the other hand, tend to be quieter and more reserved during social interactions. Importantly, however, shyness isn't the same thing as introversion: introverts can be shy or anxious in social situations, but this isn't always the case. Additionally, being an introvert doesn't mean that someone is antisocial. As Susan Cain, bestselling author and introvert herself, explains in an interview with Scientific American, "We're not anti-social; we're differently social. I can't live without my family and close friends, but I also crave solitude." 

The 4 Different Types of Introverts 

In 2011, psychologists at Wellesley College suggested that there may actually be several different kinds of introverts. Because introversion and extroversion are broad categories, the authors suggested that not all extroverts and introverts are the same. The authors suggest that there are four categories of introversion: social introversion, thinking introversion, anxious introversion, and inhibited/restrained introversion. In this theory, a social introvert is someone who enjoys spending time alone or in small groups. A thinking introvert is someone who tends to be introspective and thoughtful.

Anxious introverts are those who tend to be shy, sensitive, and self-conscious in social situations. Inhibited/restrained introverts tend not to seek out excitement and prefer more relaxed activities. 

Is it better to be an introvert or an extrovert? 

Psychologists have suggested that extroversion is correlated with positive emotions—that is, people who are more extroverted tend to be happier than introverts. But is this actually the case? Psychologists who studied this question found that extroverts often do experience more positive emotions than introverts. However, researchers have also found evidence that there are indeed “happy introverts”: when researchers looked at happy participants in a study, they found that about one-third of these participants were also introverts.  In other words, more extroverted people may experience positive emotions slightly more often on average, but many happy people are actually introverts.

Writer Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts points out that, in American society, extroversion is often seen as a good thing. For example, workplaces and classrooms often encourage group work—an activity that comes more naturally to extroverts. However, in an interview with Scientific American, Cain points out that we are neglecting the potential contributions of introverts when we do this. Cain explains that being an introvert actually has some advantages. For example, she suggests that introversion may be related to creativity. Additionally, she suggests that introverts can make good managers in workplaces, because they may give their employees more freedom to pursue projects independently and may be more focused on the organization's goals than their individual success. In other words, even though extroversion is often valued in our current society, being an introvert has benefits as well. That is, it isn't necessarily better to be either an introvert or an extrovert. These two ways of relating to others each have their own unique advantages, and understanding our personality traits can help us study and work with others more effectively.

Introvert and extrovert are terms that psychologists have used for decades to explain personality. Most recently, psychologists have considered these traits to be part of the five-factor model, widely used to measure personality. Researchers who study introversion and extroversion have found that these categories have important consequences for our well-being and behavior.

Importantly, research suggests that each way of relating to others has its own advantages—in other words, it's not possible to say that one is better than the other. 

Elizabeth Hopper is a freelance writer living in California who writes about psychology and mental health.

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Hopper, Elizabeth. "What "Introvert" and "Extrovert" Really Mean." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/introvert-vs-extrovert-4152958. Hopper, Elizabeth. (2017, October 31). What "Introvert" and "Extrovert" Really Mean. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/introvert-vs-extrovert-4152958 Hopper, Elizabeth. "What "Introvert" and "Extrovert" Really Mean." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/introvert-vs-extrovert-4152958 (accessed November 19, 2017).