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Caroline Beaton
Caroline Beaton

The Introvert-Extravert Myth

Here's the trait you really need to succeed in life and business.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.

If you don't know whether you're an introvert or extravert, you live under a rock.

The terms were invented by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the 1920s. They've since adopted a prominent, if not undying, life of their own. They're the cornerstone of Myers-Briggs and one of the Big Five traits. Most simply, Jung conceived of introverts as drawing energy from being alone, whereas extraverts draw it from their surroundings and relationships.

Image by Pathdoc on Getty Images
Source: Image by Pathdoc on Getty Images

But the very man who dreamt up what has become the pinnacle of personality labels conceded that "There is, finally, a third group, and here it is hard to say whether the motivation comes chiefly from within or without." In Psychological Types, Jung wrote that this group—not introverts or extraverts—is "the most numerous and includes the less differentiated normal man." In other words, Jung believed that introverts and extraverts are minorities.

What is this mysterious, common third type? Research increasingly points to the existence of "ambiverts": people with balanced, nuanced personalities composed of both introverted and extraverted traits.

According to a Wall Street Journal interview with Wharton psychologist Adam Grant, ambiverts make up between half and two-thirds of the population.

This is good news, because ambiverts win at life and business. The "ambivert advantage" scientifically explains how ambiverts combine the best of both sides. In one of several such studies, ambiverts achieved higher sales productivity than introverts or extraverts—in some cases, twice as much. Because ambiverts can listen as well as assert themselves, they're ideal salespeople, coworkers, business owners, and leaders.

To be sure, diehard introverts and extraverts do exist, but they're exceptions, and they may be worse for it. Furthermore, extreme leanings could be the result of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "fixed mindset."

Over several decades, research by Dweck and others has differentiated between growth mindset—believing you can cultivate your qualities and personality with effort—and fixed mindset—conviction that you have a limited amount of intelligence or talent, a certain personality, and immutable character.

A recent study positioned fixed mindset as "self-as-story": You believe you're a certain way; that's just how you are. It's the story you tell yourself about you. The study explained, as an example, that "a person who conceptualizes themselves as introverted may have difficulty recognizing or remembering their own extraverted behavior, or they may avoid potentially stressful social situations and come to live in an increasingly insular world."

After taking some personality tests in college, I decided I was an introvert. I noticed that the more I saw myself as an introvert, the more introverted I became. At 18, I thought I was the life of the party. At 25, I almost convinced myself that I was psychologically incapable of giving speeches.

"Self-as-story" tendencies are associated with reduced wellbeing, particularly if self-conceptualizations are negative. Fixed mindsets are correlated with reduced performance, self-esteem, creativity, resilience and self-awareness.

But still worse is that our story about ourselves isn't true.

The uncovering of ambiverts is part of a larger investigation suggesting that healthy personalities are situational; some experts even think personality is a myth. We're inconsistent. We change more than we think we will depending on what happens. There may not be some permanent, fixed "me"—whether introvert or extravert—to expose.

Research shows that we feel how we act (when we smile, we feel happier) and we act how we believe (if we believe we're introverted, we act that way). These are adaptive, evolutionary responses. The problem is when our beliefs are grounded in one-off multiple-choice personality quizzes, not everyday reality.

We don't need to understand ourselves so much as we need to understand our situations. We need to ask,

"Does this meeting call for sitting back, listening and taking notes like an introvert, or does it require confidence, assertiveness, and charisma like an extravert?


"How can I combine the two approaches here effectively?"

Ambiverts recognize that identifying with exclusively one trait is exhausting. You probably do too: Recall a situation where you had too much of what your introverted or extraverted personality stereotypically wants. Jung quipped that anyone 100 percent extraverted or 100 percent introverted would be a "lunatic."

We need both. We are both.

Of course, people's personalities differ. We love to, repeatedly, learn this. But the introvert/extravert debate has a polarizing, restrictive effect on our potential to see and accommodate what a given scenario needs — or even what we need right then. Over time, our success shrinks to a minute sphere of what our personality types can "handle."

We resist labels others give us, so why do we give them to ourselves?

Hopefully continued research on ambiversion and situational personality can shed light on what introversion and extraversion really are: self-limiting beliefs.

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About the Author
Caroline Beaton

Caroline Beaton is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Her writing on psychology, health and culture has appeared in the Atlantic, Vice, Forbes and elsewhere.

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