Personality Psychology and Introverts

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Why the world needs introverts
Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS Read by 53,277 people
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Tuesday 13 March 2012
Shy, unconfident, solitary: there are many popular conceptions of introversion – most of them negative – but the reality is far more complicated

Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – the "north and south of temperament", as the scientist JD Higley puts it – is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise (a habit found in extroverts), commit adultery (extroverts), function well without sleep (introverts), learn from our mistakes (introverts), place big bets in the stock market (extroverts), delay gratification (introverts), be a good leader (depends on the type of leadership called for), and ask "what if" (introverts).

It's reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous systems. Today introversion and extroversion are two of the most exhaustively researched subjects in personality psychology, arousing the curiosity of hundreds of scientists.

These researchers have made exciting discoveries aided by the latest technology, but they're part of a long and storied tradition. Poets and philosophers have been thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recorded time. Both personality types appear in the Bible and in the writings of Greek and Roman physicians, and some evolutionary psychologists say that the history of these types reaches back even farther than that: the animal kingdom also boasts "introverts" and "extroverts", from fruit flies to pumpkinseed fish to rhesus monkeys. As with other complementary pairings – masculinity and femininity, East and West, liberal and conservative – humanity would be unrecognizable, and vastly diminished, without both personality styles.

Take the partnership of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr: a formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn't have had the same effect as a modest woman who would clearly prefer to keep silent but for the exigencies of the situation. And Parks didn't have the stuff to thrill a crowd if she had tried to stand up and announce that she had a dream. But with King's help, she didn't have to.

Yet today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We're told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds and in corporate corridors. Some fool even themselves, until some life event – redundancy, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like – jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He or she favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong; works well in teams and socialises in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who is comfortable "putting himself out there". Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.

Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a...
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