As you are well aware, reality is complex. Very complex. And the brain is the most complex piece of matter in the universe. There will be strong AI before we understand how the brain’s neural activity causes consciousness. It’s that far off. This is context.
I’m going to deconstruct why introversion-extroversion is BS. The same reasoning will apply to Myers Briggs. I need to bring some concepts to our attention to start.
1. Confirmation bias: once you “set” confirmation bias, your mind filters conflicting information from your experience. What looks like damning evidence of a person’s wrong-ness to me might look like absurd noise to them. Some conflicts might be deleted from perception entirely (how interesting is that?).
2. Consistency: this is a principle of human behaviour. Essentially, once you agree to something, your future behavior, actions, thoughts, tend to trend in accordance with your previous agreement. This is a big part of why positive self-talk is important, for instance.
3. Framing: one of the best tools Adams brought back into my awareness is framing. Suppose any given topic has a set of ten thousand different frames a creative person could potentially invent for the issue (this is probably a low estimate). Once you accept a frame by arguing for or against it, you have set your confirmation bias, and it will be hard to remove your own need to be consistent.
4. Habit: how you fulfill any human need will be mostly habit. Initially it’s a choice, but most people *lose* their ability to choose new actions, getting stuck in loops for years, decades, etc.
Now I’m ready. Thanks in advance for reading, I care about this reframe I’m about to drop. I thought of it while trying to imagine a reframe Adams would be impressed by (clever + helpful). It could work.
The introversion-extroversion label is familiar to everyone who has ever opened a book in psychology. It’s one of the first things they tell you about. It’s also fake bullshit.
Introversion-extroversion is an attempt to describe human personality traits. It is viewed as a single continuum. That should be your first red flag for a work of fiction presented as science.
Wikipedia states, “Extraversion is the state of primarily obtaining gratification from outside oneself,” and “Introversion is the state of being predominantly interested in one’s own mental self.”
And pay attention to this as well:
“Extraverts are energized and thrive off being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups.”
“Introverts often take pleasure in solitary activities such as reading, writing, using computers, hiking and fishing. The artist, writer, sculptor, scientist, engineer, composer and inventor are all highly introverted. An introvert is likely to enjoy time spent alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people, though they may enjoy interactions with close friends.”
Redefine it however you like. In its most simple form, introversion-extroversion tends to describe: “Do you prefer socializing or solitude?” and “Do you prefer sensing your own internal life or the world around you?”
Imagine a formula describing how you will behave in a given social situation. We will need variables to cover hunger, fatigue, stress, how long it has been since you went to the gym, whether you had sex recently, whether you are looking for sex, how much you have in the bank. You will need to add to the formula a description of how well you know each person in the group, because things like trust, how much you have in common, etc., all influence your body’s decision to be social or not.
All of these variables are changing at all times. It turns out to be a complex system where changing one variable sends cascades through the rest of the system. Would I socialize while hungry? Yes, we could go get food together, but a given person might not be so interested if someone they distrust or dislike is in the group. Suddenly their nerves are flaring and want to be somewhere else.
Suppose you are observing that one person in the above paragraph. You have just met and your brain is rapid-firing hallucinations about their character by extrapolating from a sample size of 1. They are wearing a band t-shirt and you would never do that. “They must be an introvert who spends their time alone, or else they would have realized it is a mistake by now,” you think. When they decline to join the group for dinner because you have been giving them (subconsciously) dirty looks for the past hour, your initial impression is confirmed. Introvert!
When psychologists set out to measure these things, they are already losing the battle. By exploring with the frame of “introversion or extroversion?” they are summing an n dimensional matrix into one variable.
There are competing personality theories, of course. But few of the researchers will be busy considering all of the personality theories that haven’t been invented yet, because of course they cannot. Those frames do not yet exist in their minds. So their confirmation bias kicks in and they find evidence supporting introversion-extroversion, Myers-Briggs, whatever. They find evidence that “introverts do this, therefore extroverts do that,” and other absurd summaries of human behavior.
This is the issue of “limited-frame confirmation bias”, which I will rebrand later: Your mind can’t find evidence to support a theory that does not yet exist. The ideas simply aren’t there in your head.
By the time a person passes through the school system, they have long since been labeled and relabeled by Myers-Briggs and other personality tests. I recall learning I was an “introvert” around age 9, feeling uncomfortable that I had a lifetime without enough company ahead of me. Bias set.
Recall consistency: Once a person has committed to being X, they continue to behave in ways that support their existence as an X. This is called identity and it is persistent. Changing someone’s identity is hard. Once you believe you are an X, you begin to adopt it as part of your ego. What do you mean I’m not an X? I like characteristics a, b, c that I attribute to being an X.
This actually has a negative effect on people. You fall for this idea of yourself as an introvert or extrovert and presume you cannot change. The behavior of a human being is a complex system of habits, which means it is easy to understand why people presume they cannot change their social and sensory based behaviors.
Now a thought experiment. Suppose someone has an unmet need they experience often, and they are doing a poor job of satisfying it. In this thought experiment, we suppose the person is experiencing something and labeling it “satisfaction” in their head, unaware that they could have a much more gratifying experience by doing something else. Example, meet two people. Bob is a person who is decidedly an “introvert” and reads fiction to get a second-hand experience of socializing. Sally is an extrovert who goes to large parties every week (which are more private) to experience almost-solitude in a drunken walk with a friend. Keep both these people in mind for a second.
To fully understand how bullshit the introversion-extroversion spectrum is, I am going to introduce a new idea to take its place. Are you ready? Are you sure?
It’s a skill gap. The whole thing.
Most people are doing fine as they are. Their habits and beliefs have gotten them this far in life, even though some are unhappy. They might commonly experience states where their needs seem to be fully met, even if it isn’t getting them anything useful in the long run. These are the flock you tend to.
I am looking for people who believe the introversion-extroversion spectrum as an excuse to avoid improving their lives. We’ll return to the thought experiment from above.
Bob grew up with a small family in a large city. His family was not part of any community groups and so his childhood exposure to socializing was limited to daycare and playing with an older, older cousin at his aunt’s every second weekend. School came around and he started off with under-developed social skills.
Suppose there is a set of n facial cues a person can display. By chance, Bob never learned more than a third of them, but he did learn to recognize that he doesn’t recognize them. He learned this when he felt unwelcome for some reason (the cause of the unwelcomeness itself being describable only with a very large matrix, if we are going to account for all the contributing factors) and began habitually avoiding situations where he anticipated experiencing “that feeling” of unwelcomeness. On one side of simplicity, people truly did tend to dislike Bob, relative to other people. On the other side of simplicity, Bob really didn’t know what he was doing at a party. So he went home and read about them.
I pause here to say specifically, this fictional Bob a) wants to socialize more and b) does not know how to socialize more and c) would enjoy socializing IF he had better habits and skills for it.
Now imagine we are researchers reading over a case study about Bob. We read all the reported information about his “introverted” behaviors and conclude that “Bob is an introvert” is the cause of the behavior instead of the label being the effect of the behavior.
A theme of Taleb’s books is chance. It is purely chance if Bob is to encounter a way of changing his behaviors. He does not know what he does not know. Further, he might not believe that there is a way of changing, since he is an “introvert”, and his current internal habits do not support the motivation to go out and search for a solution. (If he did go out and look, he would probably select “social skills for introverts” as his helper.)
Sally the extrovert goes to parties because she grew up with parents who had lots of parties. As a child she was exposed to several families visiting her house at once. She had a politician for a father and a nurse for a mother, along with four siblings. Her school years were spent learning to be charming.
Now suppose Sally has needs for quiet time (to relax), and time with her thoughts because of some difficult problems she requires creativity to solve. On these drunken walks with a friend, she finds that it is relatively quiet compared to her otherwise hectic adult life (a sibling and two roommates live with her, because she never learned to survive without others present to share the workload). Neither her nor her friends realize this through her charm, but she is usually using them to work through difficult problems that she would enjoy solving more effectively on her own with a pen and paper — but she never learned this skill.
Again I pause specifically to say that this “extroverted” character Sally in fact has less satisfaction in her life than she could if she adopted some simple habits that writers like you and I do daily. But her confirmation bias will never allow her to consider it because “extroverts don’t do that”.
And again if we were researchers we might conclude, “yep, extrovert! If she’s unhappy she would enjoy doing more of i, j, k with some new friends and could fix this habit of wondering about her problems by spending more time at football games, outside of internal sensory experience.”
Some final thoughts that I won’t develop further here:
- The Wikipedia definitions above mention that introverts tend to prefer “inner” sensory experience while extroverts tend to prefer “outer” sensory experience. That’s another sum-job gone wrong. Once you categorize something, your confirmation bias kicks in, as with anything else. But there are so many variables. I learned recently that you can literally change how much time you spend inside/outside your head through hypnotism. A long time ago, I spent probably three or four years straight experiencing my inner thoughts constantly. Unpleasant. Now I hardly notice them at all.
- The Wiki definitions claim extroverts are energized by socializing. I will use myself as an example. I avoided socializing and found it distressing until I improved my skill set and associated a reward with socializing instead of a punishment (from experiencing my own perceived lack of ability). Likewise an “extrovert” can learn to enjoy writing, sculpting, etc., if they can organize their internal life to get a loop of pleasure from improving their craft. That too is a skill you can learn.
Ed – My intent is to develop and refine this idea until I can write short but persuasive blog posts on the subject. This post has far too many words.