Beyond Introversion and Extroversion

There are many ways to track personality from the ancient Greeks philosophers who thought that people tended to come in four varieties based on their emotionality and, of course, introversion to extroversion. Myers-Briggs personality tests are fairly popular today using four different measurements of personality with the first personality distinction being that between an introvert and extrovert. Of the myriad of other tests available for determining your personality type, virtually all of them include a scale between introversion and extroversion.

I believe that the introversion and extroversion distinction is a completely useless measurement to use if you want to improve your own life. In fact, I feel strongly that many people have been unnecessary locked inside a personality label which is inadequate in describing the complexity of human behavior.

I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I have little scientific basis for arguing my claims aside from several books and many articles I have read on personality types. But I am not here to argue the scientific validity of the introversion to extroversion bias. Although I question the scientific merit of creating a linear scale to represent any form of behavior, this argument isn’t about whether or not introversion and extroversion are unscientific labels.

I speak from personal experience. My argument is going to focus on why introversion/extroversion labels are ridiculous to use in improving the quality of your life and how they form unnecessary limitations for you. I believe that not only is there more than one dimension between introversion and extroversion but that you are free to consciously change your bias between these two extremes.

A Personal Story

Since I am arguing that you should abandon these two labels from a personal experience standpoint I might as well share some of my personal experience. As a child and through most of my teenage years I was incredibly introverted. I was shy and quiet in pretty much all social gatherings. I generally had one or two good friends as opposed to dozens and I was far more comfortable being alone. Some personality tests I took during this time rated me as highly introverted.

Like many other introverts, I was fairly dissatisfied with my label. Sure I rationalized to myself that being an introvert was better than going off and having fun with other people. But social pressures along with my own dissatisfaction made me intensely unhappy about being an introvert.

Several years ago I started questioning this introversion label that had been applied to me. Perhaps, I thought, this label was no more than an illusion that was locking myself into behaviors that made me more and more introverted. Perhaps, I thought, I could change this direction and choose who I wanted to be.

Working hard I slowly brought up my communication skills. I worked hard to improve my social skills, particularly in the group settings that I had found so uncomfortable before. I also worked to increase my tolerance to the stimulation provided by these settings. Sure it was very draining to be around so many people at first but as I worked at it I got used to the extra input. I joined Toastmasters and worked on my public speaking.

Flash forward to the present and I could consider myself highly extroverted. Easily handling group situations I have met and made friends with dozens of people in the few short days since my move to university. I have little problems speaking in public and I am good at meeting new people. Today I feel no energy drain being around people, quite the opposite it actually charges me. For a child who was labeled extremely introverted I have made quite a turnaround.

Now that you can see my own personal experience, I’d like to share why I believe that introversion and extroversion labels are complete junk from a personal growth standpoint on three different premises.

Introversion and Extroversion as Skills

The first premise that I want to argue that the introversion/extroversion labels are useless is when we look at introversion and extroversion as skills. One of the ways personality tests judge your current introversion and extroversion bias is in communication and social skills. If you get nervous speaking in public, one of the reasons is likely that you haven’t mastered the skills necessary to perform well. Since you can’t perform well without the proper skills, you will likely feel nervous.

More than just communication skills and nervousness, skills come in the form of experience with social situations. If you speak in front of a crowd of several thousand people and you have never done it before, you lack the proper skills to handle yourself in front of such a large audience. If, however, you have spoken to crowds this size many times before and some even larger, than a crowd of several thousand probably won’t scare you. You have acquired the skills necessary to perform in this environment.

Just like baseball, drawing or riding a bicycle, social skills can be learnt and improved. You know in your own life areas where you lacked skills that you now have. Using skills as a measure of your introversion and extroversion puts these two labels on very shaky grounds. If by improving a few skills you can become more extroverted or introverted then using these labels as permanent indicators of your personality would be like labeling people in categories of bicycle riders and non-bicycle riders.

Introversion and Extroversion as Stimulus Response

The other distinction I hear very often between introverts and extroverts is that introverts are more easily stimulated by events whereas extroverts require much larger doses of stimulation to feel the same sensations. Since too much and too little stimulation generally results in uncomfortable emotions, introverts, it is said, tend to avoid stimulation and extroverts crave it.

I don’t disagree with this concept of stimulus response. Those who are currently introverted are likely to avoid stimulation because their body reacts to it more severely. However, this concept doesn’t exclude the ability for you to consciously condition your body to handle more or less stimulus.

Our bodies are incredible machines at adapting. With virtually any body function, when there is an appropriate environmental change, the body adapts to compensate. Why wouldn’t the bias between introversion and extroversion also be subject to this effect. Shouldn’t exposing yourself to more and more stimulus make you less sensitive to it? Conversely, wouldn’t exposing yourself to less stimulus make you more sensitive?

Even though it is initially uncomfortable, you can slowly build up your tolerance to stimulation if you are currently very introverted. By conditioning the body to handle increasingly more stimulating environments you can get more and more extroverted. If you are currently very extroverted, conditioning yourself to reduce stimulation may be helpful if you want to pursue things that require a more solitary focus.

Introversion and Extroversion, The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Above all of my arguments for the abandonment of these two labels for human personality, the most important one is this: labels for introversion and extroversion create a self-fulfilling prophecy that continuously reinforce themselves. In other words, the belief that you are an introvert will color your perceptions and ultimately your ability to change it.

The identities we create for ourselves form our own self-fulfilling prophecies. To an incredibly large extend you are whatever you think you are. If you think of yourself as being incredibly successful and talented that is quite often the reality you create for yourself. The person who sees themselves as being weak and feeble will craft themselves in exactly that same image. This incredibly powerful principle of identity couldn’t be stronger in the matters of introversion and extroversion. Believe you are an introvert and you cut off any personality traits that contradict this.

Once you are given a label or an identity it is very easy to find evidence supporting this. If you were to look around couldn’t you find some strong evidence to show that the world is in dire straights, getting worse and worse everyday? Of course you could, just look at all the horrible stuff that is happening right now. But couldn’t you also look around and see all the things that indicate things are getting better? So if you are told that you are an introvert you will immediately search your environment for supporting evidence. Any contradictory references will be filtered out in order to fit into the label of ‘introvert’.

By abandoning the labels of introvert and extrovert as being your preset personality, and exploring the idea that you have power over how you want to interact with the world you can create that power. Introversion and extroversion may be useful to psychologists sitting in ivory towers trying to explain the patterns of behavior they see, but it isn’t useful in maximizing your own life. I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about why you should avoid introversion and extroversion labels. I’ll post a follow-up article later outlining how you can actually take steps to control your personality.

  • Dave

    Well, I’ve enjoyed reading many of your posts, Scott, but I think you are way off base with this one, mainly because you seem to be confusing “introversion” with “shyness”. Most shy people are introverts, but not all introverts are shy. Personally, as an introvert (as I mentioned in the comments of another post, way, way on the introverted side) I don’t see being “labeled” as an introvert as negative, as you apparently do. It’s just a way of interacting with the world. I can have all the people skills you mention and more (and I think and hope I do) and I will still be an introvert. You may want to take a look at “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney and “The Loners’ Manifesto” by Anneli Rufus if this topic interests you.

  • Scott Young


    Thanks for the comments. My major stance was introversion to extroversion simply because our culture has a negative stance on that personality. Since I doubt most extroverts are wanting to become more introverted (despite advantages) I tried to write more to introverts where a desire to be more extroverted would be more common. I really think the advantages of both sides are about equal despite societies preference for extroversion.

    That said, I did make some references attatching shyness to introversion. You are correct in noting that the two are different qualities, but they would be correlated with each other. As a plus, many people take the label of introvert to mean shy even if they are actually separate qualities. Most of the tests used to tell whether some is introverted wouldn’t have big distinctions between shyness and introversion either since responses to questions like “Are you uncomfortable talking in groups” could apply to both.

    You are right in saying that it is more than just people skills that separate introverts from extroverts (although I think that can often be a big part). By conditioning yourself to accept more stimulus you can increase your extroverted abilities.

    Introverts do have many advantages and I have utilized many of those. My desire is to strike a happy medium where I can access the benefits of introversion and extroversion together. If you are perfectly happy with your current personality, it isn’t a requirement to change it.

  • Al Brown

    This is a great point. Skills and comfort levels in the situations that require them are not static. So such labels are really only temporary descriptors. We shouldn’t let them control what we do.

    These kinds of labels have real destructive power. I think about racist notions and how even many of the labeled can buy into the falsehoods perpetuated by them.

    The most powerful people reject limiting labels. They don’t let them limit what they can do or what great things they discover in others.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments, Al. Labels and generalizations are destructive more often than not.

  • max night

    i agree with you completely that the intro/extro labels are ridiculous, but many articles on the subject say that there is a large and contraversial grey area that has the majority of these labeled people put in. You could say that an individual is more of one than the other, although based on social skills and personal traits, this curve towards either being more introverted or extroverted is like being on a tight rope the width of the golden gate bridge. I personally am very introverted, compared to me saying that i am an introvert, and that label shouldnt apply to anyone. it should be more of a condition, such as being termite infested, where the wood is you and the termite is the introversion. There is a level of it, and like you said, you can change that level so you can have fewer termites, except these personality bugs arent dangerous, just different and personal to the individual. I dont like the idea of being more extroverted, and I actually enjoy being completely introverted. When I interact with others, I dont ever seem to be the one talking, and I also multitask, listening to the conversation while at the same time, am in my own little world. I also dont like sharing any personal information with others, and dislike parties and social gatherings. I sometimes wish that I was a mute. For me, introversion is very advantagious because of how well Im doing in high school right now, and I often have free time to occupy with my own thoughts and ideas. Finally, please leave a response to this comment because I am unable to truly comment to anyone and have them reply. Thanks

  • max night

    If you comment back on this one Scott, be sure to note the date of when I wrote my first response. I want to elaborate on what the phenomena of introversion and extroversion are. They might be personality types, but the very thing that differentiates the two is where you get energy from. introverts get theirs from being alone and inside themselves. Think of an introvert being around others. Those others take away energy from the introvert, and being alone recharges their batteries. Extroverts on the other hand, are energy vampires. Though they dont hurt you by taking energy, they simply gain more of it by being around others. an introvert can be more social than an extrovert, it is quite possible. The reason why shyness and being “antisocial” are put together with being an introvert because it is the tendency of an introvert to do so, as viewed by an extrovert.. Most of the time introverts arent shy or antisocial, they want a lot of alone time because they simply need to recharge or be inside themselves.

  • Chris

    Excellent post. I would just add a pointer to the ‘Big 5’ model of personality traits, where Extroversion is considered as a trait, being the intensity of response to pleasurable stimuli, and Neuroticism is a totally separate trait, being the intensity of response to negative or painful stimuli. So, someone subject to social anxiety would be high on the Neuroticism trait, independantly of his/her degree of Extroversion. This is the distinction between shyness (high N), and introversion (low E). Daniel Nettle, ‘Personality’, is an excellent author on this subject.
    The question of how much we can modify our score on these traits is very high on my agenda. Thanks for the post.

  • Auxa

    I know this article is several years old, but you hit everything right on the spot. I have always believed it to be such a self-fulfilling prophecy. I do not doubt that there are people who are extremely shy and lack social skills, but those reasons can vary between childhood, trauma, how they were raised, etc. Like myself, I can relate to you on the dot on being quite shy and later on in life being extremely outgoing. I find myself nowhere and everywhere outside this “I/E” spectrum people enjoy identifying themselves with. It’s not bad, but it won’t let people go anywhere. They’ll always embrace that which they know and never touch that which they have so much potential in.

  • Auxa

    I know this article is several years old, but you hit everything right on the spot. I have always believed it to be such a self-fulfilling prophecy. I do not doubt that there are people who are extremely shy and lack social skills, but those reasons can vary between childhood, trauma, how they were raised, etc. Like myself, I can relate to you on the dot on being quite shy and later on in life being extremely outgoing. I find myself nowhere and everywhere outside this “I/E” spectrum people enjoy identifying themselves with. It’s not bad, but it won’t let people go anywhere. They’ll always embrace that which they know and never touch that which they have so much potential in.