Why am I an introvert? Why am I an extrovert?

Are you an introvert? Are you an extrovert? Chances are if you’re asking this question, there’s a higher likelihood that you are an introvert rather than an extrovert, but to find out, you can go an take the Introvert/ Extrovert Test.

Let’s look at what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert:

What is an introvert?       What is an extrovert?

Introvert alludes to looking inwards whilst extrovert refers to looking outwards. Inwards and outwards where? We’re referring to our inner and outer worlds:

  • The inner world is our world of thoughts and feelings. It is:
    - quiet apart from your own whirring mind
    - private and only known to you
    - as deep as you’re willing to go via introspection
  • The outer world is the world around us, which is:
    - public and open to everyone
    - full of activity, people, chatter and noise
    - generally consists of everyday things that are around us.

Whilst we all inhabit both inner and outer worlds every day, most people tend to spend more time being active in one world than the other. Often we are unaware as to our tendencies to look more inwards or outwards. The psychologist Carl Jung classified people who live dominantly in the outer world as Extroverts, and people who live more within the inner world as Introverts. Most of us lie somewhere in the spectrum between introversion/ extroversion extremes.

Perhaps a clearer way of understanding what the terms introvert and extrovert imply is to look at some defining traits of these two types of people.

Introvert defining traits Extrovert defining traits
Enjoy spending time alone. This is how they unwind and recharge. They also work best on their own. They often have alone-time hobbies like reading, drawing, writing, playing music alone in their room or playing on their own on the computer. They are good at entertaining themselves. Often dislike spending time alone and find it quickly becomes boring and tiring. They work best when with people. They become energized by being amongst people. Their hobbies also tend to involve being amongst others so may include team sports, playing in a band, going to group dance classes and similar things. They often prefer entertaining themselves in the company of others.
Usually prefer to have a few good friends rather than a lot of acquaintances. Enjoy having lots of acquaintances and friends.
Like to think things through in their head rather than out loud. Like to think things through out loud with others.
Like to understand the world first, and then experience it, so often spend a lot of time thinking before doing. They also like thinking after doing things and are more prone to analyse past situations. This means introverts are more likely to cut themselves off from the world and wallow when a problem arises. Need to experience the world in order to understand it, so are often quite active. They are less likely to overanalyse things excessively before or after they occur. This means that rather than analyse things when they go wrong, extroverts are far more likely than introverts to react by going out and having fun to try and forget their worries.
Tend to enjoy observing rather than being the centre of attention. They tend to listen more than talk and tend to be more subdued in their tone and speech. Tend to enjoy being the centre of attention. They tend to talk more than listen and are sometimes more theatrical in their tone and speech.
Tend to enjoy learning about subjects to great depth Usually don’t really enjoy getting into the deep details of things.
Are more inclined to be private people and less likely to volunteer information without being asked, although they might if given enough time. They really value their personal, private space. Are less inclined to be private people and are more inclined to share information even if not asked. They are less fussy about needing personal, private space.
Can feel drained when exposed to too much stimulation, like too much interaction with people, too much noise, excitement and too much activity. They’re often those that seek out the quieter corners of a party and are usually amongst the early ones to leave. Feel energized when exposed to stimulation like people, noise, excitement and activity. They’re often the last people who stay at the party.
It is possible introverts are more sensitive to punishment than reward (Depue & Collins 1999) It is possible extroverts are more sensitive to reward than to punishment (Depue & Collins 1999)
May prefer practical and more subdued clothes. (Sharma 1980) May prefer more showy and decorative clothes (Sharma 1980)
More often prefer gentler music (although not always) (Rentfrow & Gosling 2003) More often prefer more upbeat and energetic music (although not always) (Rentfrow & Gosling 2003)

Note: These are all generalizations and stereotypes and people are usually not pure introverts or extroverts, but rather a mix of both.

Why does it matter if I’m an introvert or an extrovert?

Understanding whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert can help you understand yourself better, which is a step towards accepting yourself as you are, even if you deviate slightly from what society deems as “good”. Self-acceptance is important because it is an integral component of happiness.

Our society tends to be quite judgmental where introversion and extroversion are concerned. There appears to be an invisible social gauge that measures extroverted behaviour as being better than introverted behaviour. Friendliness, chattiness, sociability and generally being a “people person” are deemed desired traits, and these qualities usually are those associated with extroversion. Because people think these traits are “good” and preferred to their own introvert characteristics, they may beat themselves up if they are feeling quiet, private or less outgoing.

Introverts may be embarrassed to admit that they don’t particularly enjoy attending parties, or they may feel shy about telling people that they enjoy spending time alone in quiet places for fear of being deemed as antisocial wet blankets. Introvert traits are considered by some to be synonymous with the traits of the social outcast. People who notice their introvert tendencies may be frustrated with themselves for not having high social stamina and this can make them feel inadequate. But it’s important to remember that having lower social stamina doesn’t make you a less friendly person, nor does it decrease your value as a human being. We cannot force ourselves to be that which we are not, so accept yourself as you are and allow yourself to be yourself. People who are introverts can still be sociable, friendly, chatty and successful in the outer world even if they do prefer spending more time in their own company.

The idea that extroversion is better than introversion is a big misconception. The fact is that neither introversion nor extroversion is “better” than the other. They are just two different ways of being.  Each person is perfectly acceptable as they are and knowing this leads to self-acceptance and contentment with who you are. Judgment only limits you as a human being.

By understanding that their introvert or extrovert traits are completely natural for their personality type, people can realize that there’s nothing “wrong” with them. Being an introvert is just as okay as being an extrovert and vice versa. There is absolutely no shame in being either. They are just two different ways of being and neither makes you a more or less valuable person,

Not only can you be happier with who you are once you understand your personality tendencies, but it can also help you to seek out ways of making your life fit your personality better. For example, in seeking a career, you are far more likely to enjoy a job that fits with your introvert/ extrovert tendencies than a job that’s just considered “good” by society but which may not be appropriate for you. For example: if you are an introvert and prefer working on your own, don’t apply for a job that demands non-stop teamwork, (being a team-player is not for everyone) and on the other hand, if you are an extrovert, look for a job that involves being with people rather than working on your own.

Why am I an introvert? Why am I an extrovert?

Now for the saywhydoi bit: Why do we become introverts or extroverts? What determines these personality traits?

The answer to this is not clear but psychologists have come up with several theories.

1.) Genetic predisposition

Twin studies suggest that 39-58% of your tendency to be an introvert or an extrovert is determined by your genetics. (Tellegen et al. 1988)

What kind of genes contribute to introversion/ extroversion?

There is one theory that suggests that the genes involved in introversion/ extroversion are those that determine how readily your brain is stimulated by the environment.

Some gene types may predispose you to be very sensitive to stimulation like noise, light, chatter, smells and other inputs. At first a small amount of stimulation is enjoyed but after a certain amount of stimulation, you soon become saturated and have had enough. After that point, further stimulation can feel overwhelming and tiring. This describes potentially what happens in an introvert. They need to retreat from the stimulation and have a break from it in order to replenish their energy again.

An extrovert on the other hand may have genes that make them less sensitive to stimulation. This means that they can be exposed to the same amount of noise, light, chatter and inputs  as an introvert, but their threshold before saturation is far higher, so they will not tire of the stimuli very fast. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, they absorb the stimuli and enjoy their liveliness. On the other hand, when there is a low amount of stimulation, the extrovert can feel under-aroused and therefore needs stronger stimulation to feel satisfied. Since becoming stimulated is harder for them, they seek out external energies more often and need more exposure to really enjoy themselves.

A researcher called Eysenck hypothesised that the genes coding for stimulation sensitivity may be those in the Ascending Reticular Activating System (ARAS) in the brain. According to this hypothesis, an ARAS which lets a lot of stimuli in is one that can become saturated fast and lead to introversion, whereas an ARAS which lets less stimuli in becomes saturated slowly and can lead to extroversion. It is likely that this theory is a large oversimplification of what goes on in the brain.

Another researcher called Gray hypothesised that rather than the ARAS genes being involved, it might be genes coding for another area of the brain that may be involved in determining introversion or extroversion. He suggested that the “behavioural approach system” (BAS) which is the system that creates desire within us for things like chocolate or anything else, drives introversion or extroversion. What’s the logic behind this? People who have strong urges and desires (ie high BAS activity) are usually more impulsive and extroverted whilst people with weaker urges and desires (ie low BAS activity) may be prone to be more introverted. Gray also suggested that together with different BAS activities, introverts and extroverts may have different BIS activities (Behavioural Inhibition Systems). The BIS activity determines how often you stop yourself from doing stuff. People who have highly active BIS activities may be more shy, fearful and sensitive (traits sometimes associated with introversion) than people with less active behavioural inhibition systems.

Yet another theory is that introversion/ extroversion genes are those responsible for making, regulating and breaking down certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.  High levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine have been associated with extroversion whilst low levels of these may be associated with introversion. (Depue & Collins 1999)

Finally there is also a theory that the genes responsible for the brain’s blood supply may be involved in introversion and extroversion determination. This is based on a study that found different blood flow patterns in the brains of introverts and extroverts.  (Johnson et al. 1999)

2.) Environmental determinants

One researcher, Depue, suggests that 30-50% of people may have a genetic predisposition to introversion or extroversion, but will display the opposite tendencies when examined, and it is possible that these people deviate from their genetic predisposition because of environmental personality determinants.

Examples of environmental personality determinants that can increase likelihood of introversion:

  • Being brought up in an introverted family environment
  • Having lots of introverted friends and role models when growing up
  • Being brought up in the middle of no-where or in a small community and being unaccustomed to seeing people often (Ciani et al. 2006)
  • Social trauma like bullying which may lead to a preference for your own company through self-preservation
  • Neurotransmitter-changing factors

Examples of environmental personality determinants that can increase likelihood of extroversion:

  • Being brought up in an extroverted family environment
  • Having lots of extroverted friends and role models when growing up
  • Being brought up in a very interactive community where everybody knows everybody and you see people extremely often.
  • Neurotransmitter-changing factors

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Ciani et al. 2006. The adaptive value of personality differences revealed by small island population dynamics, European Journal of Personality, 21, 3–22

Depue & Collins 1999. Neurobiology of the structure of personality: Dopamine, facilitation of incentive motivation, and extraversion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 491–517

Johnson et al. 1999. Cerebral blood flow and personality: A positron emission tomography. Am J Psychiatry 156:252-257

Sharma. 1980. Clothing behaviour, personality, and values: A correlational study. Psychological Studies, 25, 137–142

Rentfrow & Gosling. 2003. The do re mi’s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236–1256.

Tellegen et al. 1988. Personality Similarity in Twins Reared Apart and Together Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 54, no. 6. 1031–1039

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