Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about extroversion (E) and introversion (I). As a fundamental spectrum of personality dispositions, E/I represents a timeless theme in psychology. But it manifests itself differently during different periods in history. Social psychology is the child of a historicist discipline (sociology) and an effectively ahistorical one (psychology). The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about the E/I spectrum is that a lot of my recent ruminations have been about how the rapid changes in social psychology going on around us might be caused by the drastic changes in how E/I dispositions manifest themselves in the new (online+offline) sociological environment. Here are just a few of the ideas I’ve been mulling:
- As more relationships are catalyzed online than offline, a great sorting is taking place: mixed E/I groups are separating into purer groups dominated by one type
- Each trait is getting exaggerated as a result
- The emphasis on collaborative creativity, creative capital and teams is disturbing the balance between E-creativity and I-creativity
- Lifestyle design works out very differently for E’s and I’s
- The extreme mental conditions (dubiously) associated with each type in the popular imagination, such as Asperger’s syndrome or co-dependency, are exhibiting new social phenomenology
It was the last of these that triggered this train of thought, but I’ll get to that.
I am still working through the arguments for each of these conjectures, but whether or not they are true, I believe we are seeing something historically unprecedented: an intrinsic psychological variable is turning into a watershed sociological variable. Historically, extrinsic and non-psychological variables such as race, class, gender, socio-economic status and nationality have dominated the evolution of societies. Psychology has at best indirectly affected social evolution. For perhaps the first time in history, it is directly shaping society.
So since so many interesting questions hinge on the E/I distinction, I figured it was time to dig a little deeper into it.
Note: Apropos of nothing, I’ll be in Seattle tomorrow through Monday morning. If anyone is interested in meeting up, post on the ribbonfarm Facebook page, and we’ll see if we can work something out.
Wrong, Crude and Refined Models
I’ll assume you are past the lay, wrong model of the E/I spectrum. Introversion has nothing to with shyness or social awkwardness.
If you have taken a Psychology 101 course at some point in your life, you should be familiar with the crude model: extroverts are energized by social interactions while introverts are energized by solitude. Every major personality model has an introversion/extroversion spectrum that roughly maps to this energy-based model. It is arguably the most important of the Big Five traits.
For the ideas I am interested in exploring, the Psychology 101 model is too coarse. We sometimes forget that there are no true solitary types in homo sapiens. As a social species, we merely vary in the degree to which we are sociable. We need a more refined model that distinguishes between varieties of sociability.
A traditional mixed group of introverts and extroverts exhibits these varieties clearly. Watch a typical student group at a cafeteria. The extroverts will be in their mutually energizing huddle at the center, while the introverts will be hovering at the edges, content to get the low dosage social energy they need either through one-on-one sidebar conversations or occasional contributions tossed like artillery shells into the extrovert energy-huddle at the core. Usually contributions designed to arrest groupthink or runaway optimism/pessimism.
As this example illustrates, a more precise and accurate view of the distinction is that introverts need less frequent and less intense social interaction, and can use it to fuel activities requiring long periods of isolation. Extroverts need more frequent and more intense social interactions, and can only handle very brief periods away from the group. They prefer to use the energy in collaborative action.
While true solitude (like being marooned an island without even a pet) is likely intolerable to 99% of humanity, introverts prefer to spend the social energy they help create individually. This leads naturally to a financial metaphor for the E/I spectrum.
Positive social interactions generate psychological energy, while negative ones use it up. One way to understand the introvert/extrovert difference is to think in terms of where the energy (which behaves like money) is stored.
Introverts are transactional in their approach to social interactions; they are likely to walk away with their “share” of the energy generated by any exchange, leaving little or nothing invested in the relationship itself. This is like a deposit split between two individually held bank accounts. This means introverts can enjoy interactions while they are happening, without missing the relationships much when they are inactive. In fact, the relationship doesn’t really exist when it is inactive.
Extroverts are more likely to invest most of the energy into the relationship itself, a mutually-held joint account that either side can draw on when in need, or (more likely) both sides can invest together in collaboration. This is also why extroverts miss each other when separated. The mutually-held energy, like a joint bank account, can only be accessed when all parties are present. In fact strong extroverts don’t really exist outside of their web of relationships. They turn into zombies, only coming alive when surrounded by friends.
In balance sheet terms, introverts like to bring the mutual social debts as close to zero as possible at the end of every transaction. Extroverts like to get deeper and deeper into social debt with each other, binding themselves in a tight web of psychological interdependence.
This shared custodial arrangement of relationship energy is one reason strong relationships are the biggest predictor of happiness: as Jonathan Haidt has put it, happiness is neither inside, nor outside, but in-between. Happiness is the energy latent in interpersonal bonds that helps smooth out the emotional ups and downs of individual lives. The more you put into them, the happier you will be.
Continuing the financial analogy, the small pools of individually-held stores of introvert energy tend to be more volatile in the short term but better insulated from the exposures of collectivization. The large collectively held stores of extrovert energy tend to be less volatile in the short term, but more susceptible to dramatic large scale bubbles of optimism and widespread depression.
Both sides of course, pay a price for their preferred patterns of social energy management. But that’s a topic for another day. In this post, I am more interested in bald behavioral implications of this model:
- require a minimum period of isolation every day to survive psychologically
- are energized by weak-link social fields, such as coffee shops, where little interaction is expected
- are energized by occasional, deeper 1:1 interactions, but still at arm’s length; no soul-baring
- are energized by such 1:1 encounters with anyone, whether or not a prior relationship exists
- are drained by strong-link social fields such as family gatherings
- are reduced to near-panic by huddles: extremely close many-many encounters such as group hugs
- have depth-limited relationships that reach their maximum depth very fast
- need a minimum amount of physical contact everyday, even if it is just laying around with a pet
- are energized by strong-link social fields such as family gatherings
- like soul-baring 1:1 relationships characterized by swings between extreme intimacy and murderous enmity
- are not willing to have 1:1 encounters with anyone unless they’ve been properly introduced into their social fields
- are made restless and anxious by weak-link social fields such as coffee shops unless they go with a friend
- are reduced to near panic by extended episodes of solitude
- have relationships that gradually deepen over time to extreme levels
It took me a long time to learn point 4 in particular, because it is so counter-intuitive with respect to the wrong-but-influential conflation of introversion and shyness. I am a classic introvert. You might even say I am an extreme introvert. One of my nicknames in college was “hermit.” Yet, I find that I am far more capable of talking with random strangers than most extroverts.
Extroverts tend to enjoy spending a lot of time with people they know well. Talking to strangers is less rewarding to them because most E-E transactions are maintenance transactions that help maintain, spend or appreciate the invested capital in the relationships. Some of my extrovert friends and family members are even offended by how easily and openly I talk to random strangers: to them it seems obvious that depth of sharing should correlate to length of interpersonal history. People like me simply don’t get that since our approach to relationships is to pretty much bring the depth back to zero at the end of every conversation.
The E-I Tension
Introverts (E’s) and extroverts (I’s) have a curiously symbiotic, love-hate relationship as a result. Both E-E and I-I interactions tend to be harmonious, since there is consensus on what to do with any energy generated. Positive E-E interactions strengthen bonds over time. Positive I-I interactions generate energy that is used up before the next interaction, with no collective storage.
It is E-I interactions that create interesting tensions. Extroverts accuse introverts of selfishness: from their point of view, the introverts are taking out loans against jointly-held wealth, to invest unilaterally in risky ventures. Introverts in turn accuse extroverts of being overly possessive and stifling, since they cannot draw on the energy of the relationship without the other party being present. The confusion is simple if you note that the introvert is thinking in terms of two individually held bank accounts, while the extrovert is thinking in terms of a single jointly held one.
The tension between introverts and extroverts is most visible in the loose, non-clinical mental health diagnoses they make up for each other as insults. Introverts are likely to accuse extroverts of codependency. Extroverts are likely to accuse introverts of Asperger’s syndrome. I only recently learned about the slang term extroverts have for introverts: aspie. Introverts don’t have an equivalent short slang term for codependency that I know of (probably because by definition they don’t gossip enough to require such shorthand). So let’s simply make one up for the purpose of symmetry: codie.
I’ve met people suffering from clinical versions of both co-dependency and Asperger’s, so I know that most of the aspie/codie accusations flying around are baseless.
Lately I’ve seen a lot more aspie accusations flying around than codie accusations. This is perhaps partly due to Asperger’s becoming an aspirational disease in places like Silicon Valley (along with dyslexia), due to a presumed correlation with startup success, but I believe there is more to it. Recent shifts in the social landscape have made introversion far more visible. This is among the many cracks in E-I relationships that I mentioned earlier. There are seismic shifts going on in social psychology. We may see a re-organization of social geography comparable to the great racial and socio-economic sortings created by the flight to suburbia and exurbia at the peak of the urban sprawl era.