If you’re an introvert, or have a close relationship with one, you may be wondering what exactly being an introvert means. And how to make sense of an introvert personality in an extrovert world. Or you may be wondering what you should have for lunch, which is also a fair and at times troubling question. Either way*, I have answers for you. (*I have no lunch answers for you.)


We Are All Individuals (I'm Not)

Many subjects in psychology focus on what people have in common. Perception, cognition, developmental psychology, neuropsychology, social psychology, even psychopathology – they all look at what’s the same about us.

But personality psychology, the rebel of the psychology world, is concerned with our individual psychological differences.

The kinds of questions personality psychologists are interested in are:

  1. How are people different: is there a set of dimensions on which people differ?
  2. How is an individual unique: can this be scientifically described?

(This is what happens when a frog doesn’t shower.  Amphibian hygiene matters.)

Isn't Personality Just What Unattractive People Have?

You could say your personality is made up of those individual differences that are:

  • Psychological – as opposed to say, cultural, biological, intellectual, age-related differences
  • Enduring – consistent-ish over time and situations, rather than moods or emotions that come and go
  • General patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving – versus specific attitudes or habits.

In the 1930s psychologists tried to figure out how these individual differences might be structured, what the set of dimensions of individual difference might be. If we were lipsticks, for example, they were looking for the shade, matte-versus-gloss-ness, degree of pigment, moisturising quality, etc.

They began with a dictionary and a search for all the various adjectives used to describe people. Yep, really! And it makes sense – can you think of a better starting point?

They then subjected these descriptive words to a cunning statistical method called factor analysis, which allowed them to cull many overlapping descriptors down to underlying, fundamental dimensions.

Over decades it emerged that many studies by different researchers using various data, samples, and assessment methods yielded the same five dimensions (though different researchers had given them different names). These factors showed considerable reliability and validity (ie were psychometrically sound) and also stayed pretty stable throughout adulthood. They were called the ‘Big Five‘ because the dimensions were broad and abstract, each subsuming many narrower traits within it.

The idea was, by identifying a person’s position on each of these five dimensions, you could get a decent sense of their personality. Not a set-in-stone, perfect-predictor, know-the-person-inside-out, able to Minority-Report them sense. Just a rough map of what made this person’s psychological terrain different from someone else’s. How people differed, and what made them unique.

Today these five factors represent general scientific consensus on personality structure.

MRI image of an introvert’s brain overthinking something minor. Or possibly just a brain splodge pic.

Five Things About YOU

So, what are these personality traits? (FINALLY, you say, eyes rolling.)

As you read these, remember they are dimensions. You’ll fall somewhere along a scale, not 100% at one end or the other. Also remember that there’s no value judgement attached. They are essentially the product of statistical analysis.

Extroversion*

Although Carl Jung coined the term to describe a tendency to focus on external rather than internal experiences, the modern psychological meaning of extroversion is broader – encompassing sociability, energy, activity, sensation-seeking, interpersonal dominance, and a tendency to experience positive emotional states. Research suggests the tendency toward introversion or extroversion is biologically-based.

  • A person high in Extroversion could be described as sociable, assertive, enthusiastic, energetic, forceful, talkative.
  • A person low in Extroversion, ie an introverted person, could be described as quiet, reserved, retiring.

(*You may see it spelled extroversion, but in the psychology world it is spelled extroversion, and as one of the Big Five it is given a capital E.)

Agreeableness

Agreeableness reflects cooperativeness, altruism, and compliance. At the other end of the scale is a more calculating, hostile, competitive nature.

  • A person high in Agreeableness could be described as warm, modest, kind, appreciative, trusting, affectionate, helpful.
  • A person low in Agreeableness could be described as cold, quarrelsome, unfriendly.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is largely concerned with goal-directedness and impulse control. At the low end of the scale is impulsiveness and present-orientation.

  • A person high in Conscientiousness could be described as efficient, organised, thorough, planfulreliable.
  • A person low in Conscientiousness could be described as careless, irresponsible, frivolous.

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is a tendency to experience negative emotions including anger, sadness, shame and embarrassment. It does not imply mental disorder. It is not affiliated with Woody Allen. At the other end of the scale is emotional stability, or coping well with stress.

  • A person high in Neuroticism could be described as tense, irritable, shy, moody, nervous, high-strung.
  • A person low in Neuroticism could be described as stable, calm, contented, unemotional.

Openness to Experience

Openness to Experience relates to the complexity of a person’s mental, experiential, and even aesthetic life. At the other end is conventionality and conservatism.

  • A person high in Openness to Experience could be described as imaginative, intelligent, original, insightful, curious, sophisticated.
  • A person low in Openness to Experience could be described as simple, shallowhaving narrow interests.

Discovering Your Own Personal Personality

There are personality tests, such as the well-regarded NEO PI-R, that can identify where you fall on each of these dimensions. Such tests will give you pretty much the same answer over time, and whether self-rated or other-rated, plus they’re hard to cheat, they’re good at predicting behaviour, and they get at something that’s real about personality.

But I suspect just by reading the descriptions above you’ve formed a fair idea of where you fall on each of these dimensions. Or at least you’ve recognised the dimensions on which you’d score high or low. The personality tests ask you to rate yourself on these kinds of descriptors anyway.

When I read the descriptions I would say I’m:

  • Extroversion: very low; like, sub-basement
  • Agreeableness: somewhere in the middle
  • Conscientiousness: pretty high; borderline pedant
  • Neuroticism: toward the high end; which makes me nervous 😉
  • Openness to Experience: very high
  • Attractiveness: Off the scale high; Wait, was that not one of them?

Having done the (kinda exhausting) test several times, I know this is pretty much spot-on.


What You Need To Know About The Introvert Personality

As an introvert, or as someone who wants to better understand the introvert(s) in your life, you can now see how the introvert’s tendency toward a quiet reserve is part of our psychological make-up. It’s one of five fundamental dimensions of individual difference. It is at the core of how we humans differ.

So why do you need to know that? What does it mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean you have to take a fatalistic view of yourself and feel you’re ‘stuck’ being a particular way. Certainly people can and do change over time, and most likely there’s a range along each dimension where you can move and still be ‘you’. For example, you can indulge yourself and let your mind run away with you and lean in toward Neuroticism, or you can be proactive and work on improving your coping skills and move to the more Emotionally Stable end of your personal range (something I’m working on now).

It does mean you shouldn’t compare yourself with others and feel inferior. You aren’t like the extrovert and you genuinely don’t like parties and you truly enjoy quiet evenings in. It’s simply a way you’re different – it’s not a failing!

It also does mean you needn’t listen to the well-meaning advice of others (more on this soon) who tell you to ‘come out of your shell’. You can learn what makes you happy, what feels right for you, and know that it’s perfectly okay if others don’t understand. In fact you shouldn’t expect them to understand – their personality is different!

And this is what’s great about personality psychology.

By understanding what makes us different, we can appreciate these differences – both in ourselves and in others.

We can stop judging – both ourselves and others.

We can be kinder and more accepting – towards both ourselves and others.

We can say, Hey, that’s just how it is for me, you, him, her, them

And with this perspective, we can support one another to each be happy in our own, individual, different way.


Sources:

  • Cervone, D. and Pervin, L.A. (2013). Personality Theory and Research (12th ed). US: Wiley
  • Haslam, N. (2007). Introduction to Personality and Intelligence. UK: Sage.
  • Carver, C. S. and Schier, M.F. (2004). Perspectives on Personality (5th ed). US: Pearson

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