When it comes to defining personality types, the balance of extraversion to introversion underlies people’s behavior more than any other trait. What are the key differences between extraverts vs. introverts, and why is this trait so important?
Hello reader. This is the second article in a series about the big five personality types. You might prefer to start with the first post: The Science Behind the Five Major Personality Types
Extraverts vs. Introverts—Not Necessarily Opposites?
When we talk about the trait of extraversion, we’re talking about a dimension that runs from being very low in extraversion at one end to being very high in extraversion at the other. In everyday language, we often use the label introvert to describe people who are low in extraversion, but personality researchers generally talk about low versus high extraversion rather than about introverts and extroverts. Partly that’s to avoid thinking of extraversion and introversion as if they’re personality types.
This is a transcript from the video series Why You are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Most personality characteristics are continuous traits rather than categorical types, and that’s true of extraversion. In addition, we usually don’t contrast introverts with extraverts in order to avoid the suggestion that introversion is somehow the opposite of extraversion, which it isn’t. Introverts simply fall in the lower tail of the normal distribution of extraversion scores.
Introversion is not the opposite of extraversion. Introverts simply fall on the low end of extraversion distribution scores.
So, for example, introverts may like social interactions less than extraverts do, but they don’t necessarily dislike interacting with other people at all. And introverts may be less assertive than extraverts are, but they aren’t necessarily nonassertive or submissive. So, to avoid suggesting that introverts and extraverts are opposites, we usually talk about people who are low versus high in extraversion. I’ll occasionally lapse into referring to extraverts and introverts from time to time, but keep in mind that we’re really talking about a dimension of low to high extraversion.
Extraversion and Sociability
Extraversion has a number of interrelated features, but its central characteristic is sociability. The higher that people score in extraversion, the more they enjoy interacting with other people. Compared to people who are low in extraversion, people who are high in extraversion are more gregarious, they enjoy social gatherings more—including large parties—and they seek out opportunities to interact with other people more often.
And, as you would expect, when they’re in social situations, people who are high in extraversion are more talkative than people low in extraversion are. People high in extraversion are so highly motivated to interact with other people that, when they’re alone for a long time, they sometimes go on a search just for somebody to talk to.
Many studies of extraversion have been conducted in controlled laboratory settings in which people are observed interacting with others. However, some of the best evidence for the behaviors that are associated with low and high extraversion has examined people’s behavior during everyday life.
In one study, participants completed a measure of extraversion and then wore an electronically activated recorder as they went about their daily lives. This recorder was programmed to turn on for a few minutes randomly throughout the day, providing objective data about what the participants were doing at the time. Analyses of the recorded data showed that participants who scored higher in extraversion were much more likely to be interacting with other people at times when the recorder activated than participants who were lower in extraversion.
Although sociability is the key feature of extraversion, people who are low versus high in extraversion differ in other ways as well.
Learn more about agreeableness
Characteristics of Extraverts
For example, people who are high in extraversion tend to be more assertive and dominant than people lower in extraversion. They are also more energetic and active, and they like to stay busier than people who are lower in extraversion do. High extraverts also tend to be somewhat more upbeat and cheerful than people low in extraversion, but researchers don’t completely understand why extraverts tend to experience more positive emotions.
Physiologically, high extraverts are more sensitive to rewards than people who are lower in extraversion.
One possibility is that, physiologically, high extraverts are more sensitive to rewards than people who are lower in extraversion. It seems that extraverts are more oriented toward having rewarding experiences and have a lower threshold for experiencing pleasure. Because they are more focused on rewards, people high in extraversion may tend to behave in ways that promote their own happiness more than low extraverts do.
Learn more about why different people respond to the same event in different ways
Another possible explanation is that, given how much of life requires interacting with other people, those who really enjoy interacting with others will be happier in the course of everyday life than people who don’t enjoy interacting as much.
The second most important trait in the list of the big five personality types is called neuroticism. We will talk about in the next post: Neuroticism: The Big Five Personality Types Explained