Are You a Closet Introvert?
Extraversion and social skills are not the same thing.
Posted Jan 20, 2021
It took a pandemic for me to realize that I’m a closet introvert. Confession first: I never thought much about my own personality, but as a social-personality psychologist, I had conducted a lot of research on different personality traits, including Introversion-Extraversion. And although I had administered personality inventories that measured this I-E trait to others, I had never taken it myself. But, when it came up, people would say, “Ron, you’re obviously extraverted.” So, I went through life figuring I was on the extraverted side of the continuum.
But, the pandemic has made me rethink that. During the forced COVID-19 lockdown I’ve sequestered myself in my office for most of the day, without any “live” human contact – meeting and teaching only on Zoom. And, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it (and have gotten a ton of work done!). It made me reflect on personality (and Introversion-Extraversion in particular) and what we know about it.
It’s Hard to Self-Assess Personality Traits
Research tells us that people are not very good judges of personality, although they may think they are. That’s why we use objective, validated personality assessments in psychological research and practice. What’s more, because of a whole host of biases (including self-deception, lack of self-awareness) we’re not very accurate at diagnosing our own personality traits. And, if we rely on others’ assessments, they can be inaccurate (as I found out personally). I see this all the time in class. I ask students to assess themselves, then administer some validated assessment instrument, and students are puzzled (“I thought I was X, but I’m actually Y!”).
Introversion-Extraversion: Most of Us Are Neither
Recent research by psychologist Adam Grant (and others) has focused on those individuals who are neither strongly extraverted, nor strongly introverted—what has been termed “ambiverts.” Whereas extraverts enjoy being with and interacting with others, and introverts enjoy solitude, ambiverts are characterized as being ambivalent about social situations—sometimes enjoying the company of others, but also enjoying being alone at times.
These results aren’t too surprising if we consider that extraversion-introversion is a continuum, and, if we assume that this personality trait is normally distributed (remember the bell curve). That means that about two-thirds of people are in the middle, and can be classified as ambiverts. This likely solves that age-old problem of why when people take a personality test and are classified as either an introvert or an extravert, they often feel like “I’m not really one or the other.”
Extraversion and Social Skills Are Not the Same Thing
Our own research has focused on social skills. Now extraverts do tend to be more socially skilled than introverts, as a group. That makes sense. If you are extraverted and like being around other people you have more opportunity to develop and practice social skills. But, although the two are correlated, extraversion and social skills are not the same. We’ve demonstrated that in research. For example, in a study of people who are good leaders, we found that they tended to be more extraverted – the well-known “extravert advantage” in leadership. But, when we put social skills into the equation, the extraversion advantage disappeared. In short, the deciding factor for leaders is whether or not you are socially skilled.
So, what have we learned from all of this?
- Personality is not easy to assess, and particularly difficult to self-assess.
- Others’ “diagnoses” of your personality may not be accurate either.
- Personality is not “destiny.” Although traits are tendencies to behave in particular ways, we can change all of that through developing particular skills.
Grant, A.M. (2013). Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage
Psychological Science, 24(6), 1024-1030.
Guerin, D.W., Oliver, P.H., Gottfried, A.W., Gottfried, A.E., Reichard, R.J., & Riggio, R.E. (2011). Childhood and adolescent antecedents of social skills and leadership potential in adulthood: Temperamental approach/withdrawal and extraversion. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), 482-494.