By Polina Porotsky
In a world that ties sociability to happiness, those who identify as introverted can feel caught in a crossfire: Should they aim to be more gregarious or stay true to themselves? Recent studies suggest that adopting more extraverted behaviors might be worth the effort. While it may feel draining for some, there’s still a chance it could boost introverts’ happiness.
In two studies reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers investigated what might happen if participants—including introverts as well as extraverts—were encouraged to act extraverted for an entire week. They sought to explore whether there were psychological costs or benefits to acting out of character.
In the first study, published in November 2018, 147 participants completed baseline questionnaires and were randomly assigned into one of two groups. The first group received instructions on how to behave in a more extraverted fashion for a week—including, for example, directives to be “bold” and “talkative.” The second, “sham” group was instructed to behave in ways that were “quiet,” “unassuming,” and “modest.” A third group, whose data had been collected previously, had received no specific instructions on how to act and served as a control group.
Participants used a mobile phone app to track their well-being and emotional state, completing six surveys each day for the week of the experiment, and took two additional follow-up surveys after the week had concluded. They also answered questions about their feelings of authenticity—such as, “How accurate an impression would someone have of you from the way you were acting?”—and whether they felt tired or like they needed to “recharge.”
“People like to be authentic,” explains Jessie Sun a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of California, Davis and an author on the paper. Sun and her co-authors, who are based at the University of Melbourne, aimed to determine if acting more extraverted would result in participants—particularly the introverts—feeling like they were faking.
Overall, those in the acting-extraverted group gave higher ratings of their positive emotions, relative to the control groups, in a survey at the end of the intervention week. However, the researchers found that in some ways, the success of the intervention was dependent on levels of extraversion in the initial survey. On average, participants reported feeling more authentic during a week of acting more extraverted, compared to those in the “sham” condition—but relatively introverted participants reported lower authenticity.
Introverted participants in the acting-extraverted group also gave higher contemporaneous ratings of negative emotions in their mobile-phone surveys than did those in the sham group, as well as higher ratings of tiredness.
In short, acting extraverted appeared to be beneficial for those who were at least moderately extraverted to begin with, but seemed to have psychological costs for the more introverted people.
However, another study, from August 2019, found results that may be more encouraging for introverts. Researchers from the University of California, Riverside asked 131 college students to act introverted for one week and then extraverted for another, or vice versa. During each week, participants completed online assessments to track changes in their mood, life satisfaction, and feelings of connectedness to the people around them.
Despite the fact that extraverted behaviors are typically seen as socially desirable, the experimenters deliberately avoided describing such behaviors as positive and introverted ones as negative, notes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside and one of the co-authors of the study. “We don’t think that introversion is a bad thing,” she explains. “But there has always been a strong correlation found between extraversion and positive emotion,” a finding which partially motivated the research.
Both introverts and extraverts exhibited a marked increase in positive emotions during the extraverted week and a decrease during the introverted week. Participants also showed significant increases in reported feelings of connectedness and flow—an energized state of focus, interest, and enjoyment—during the extraverted week, but weak or inconsistent effects on ratings of subjective happiness, competence, and life satisfaction. In this study, the findings showed little connection between participants’ pre-existing extraversion levels and the relative increase in positive emotions they felt.
Participants reported significant declines in positive emotions during the introverted week. But in contrast to the earlier study, Lyubomirsky and co-authors did not find consistent evidence that introverts experienced negative effects when acting extraverted.
The participants had been given only rough directions on how to act extraverted (“try to act as talkative, assertive, and spontaneous as you can”), and were encouraged to list five of their own specific ideas for when and how to do so. That may indicate that introverts looking to increase their sociability should do it at their own pace, rather than attempting to conform to specific expectations, Lyubomirsky suggests. “They don’t have to be the life of the party.”
Taken together, the studies seem to suggest that deliberately acting more extraverted could have some positive effects for introverts and extraverts alike, but the authors caution that further research is needed. For instance, Lyubomirsky says, it’s still unclear whether introverts would have felt more of a burden if asked to change their behavior for months or years, rather than just a week.
The results could also be confounded by Western cultures’ tendency to value extraversion and reward it. “[Americans] have historically valued extraversion over introversion,” says psychologist Sanna Balsari-Palsule, who works as a consultant specializing in workplace environments. “There is always the caveat that if one were to replicate these studies in Southeast Asia, for instance, we might find a very different effect.”
While any long-term effects of acting more extraverted have yet to be teased out, at least one of the researchers has been practicing extraversion for so long that she now identifies as an extravert. Lyubomirsky used to be terribly shy, she says, especially as a child. After starting high school, she made an effort to deliberately act more extraverted, even if it sometimes felt uncomfortable or unnatural.
“Through force of will, I became quite extraverted,” she says. “I am my own example.”
Polina Porotsky is a former Psychology Today Editorial Intern.