For a very long time, extraversion (also spelled “extroversion”) was considered the healthy default. It was considered perverse or pathological to avoid crowds or to crave time alone. Fortunately, introversion is far more accepted these days. People self-identify as introverts in their online dating profiles. You can buy “Go Away, I’m Introverting” T-shirts and coffee mugs.
You might be an introvert. You might be an extravert. But it’s more likely you’re an ambivert: that is, somewhere in between.
That’s because extraversion is not an all-or-nothing identity; it’s a spectrum. Psychologists count extraversion—that is, the quality of finding energy and gratification outside of oneself—among the “Big Five” dimensions of personality (along with conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to new experience, and neuroticism). Each of us is extraverted to some degree, just as we’re conscientious or neurotic. That degree could be zero (although it probably isn’t). Very few people are 100 percent anything.
Personality psychologist Robert McCrae spent his career examining and testing the Big Five model. In a 1992 study [PDF], McCrae and his collaborator found that many people (around 38 percent) fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for all five traits, including extraversion.
Adam Grant is a management expert at the Wharton School of Business. In 2013 he conducted a study on 340 call center employees. Since these are people who talk on the phone for a living, you might assume that the majority of them would be extraverts. But two-thirds said they were neither extraverted nor introverted—rather, somewhere in-between. And, more surprising still, these ambiverts outperformed extraverts on their sales calls.
Why? Grant theorized that it's because phone calls are about more than talking. Sales reps also have to listen. Ambiverts are naturally comfortable doing both, he wrote, which means that they’re “likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm to persuade and close a sale, but are more inclined to listen to customers’ interests and less vulnerable to appearing too excited or overconfident.”
Many people who self-identify as introverts or extraverts do so after taking a personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Despite its lack of scientific support, the MBTI has become immensely popular, in part because every test result is flattering. It’s a little like a horoscope: We can find ourselves in our readings, but there’s no science to back it up. The MBTI also perpetuates the myth of the all-or-nothing identity, labeling each test-taker as either an introvert or an extravert.
Look, we’re not going to tell you that you can’t be one extreme or the other. But the human experience is rich and complex. Isn’t it better to be flexible?
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