Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Here’s a look into what that question actually means.
Have you ever taken a personality test? They were the highlight of my life in 8th grade, as I raced through quiz after quiz, trying to find out who I was through online websites that weren’t even secure on my browser.
I was having an identity crisis. But, could you blame me? I had just discovered what “introverts” and “extroverts” were, and was eager to find out which one I was. Did I favor leading my fellow people, or did I relish silence and loneliness?
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided people with a new way of thinking about introverts. When the world went into lockdown, people were suddenly and abruptly cut off from their social lives. There was no more meeting up or hanging out; whatever had to happen, happened online, and everyone’s world went for a toss.
Did introverts, already used to spending time on their own, fare better during lockdown?
Theories of introversion and extroversion as basic personality types have been around since the 20th century. The first was developed by psychiatrist Carl Jung, as part of his theory on personality traits. According to him, an introvert is someone more concerned with their own affairs and wellbeing: these people are usually contemplative and daydreaming, displaying shyness when meeting others, and withdrawing under pressure and scrutiny. An extrovert, as someone more attentive to the people around them, is just the opposite: aggressive, bold, quick, and outgoing.
Jung’s theory is a bit too simplistic to explain all human complexities, and with good reason: that wasn’t its original purpose. During Jung’s time, there were two dominant theories about human behavior: one developed by the well-known psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, and the other by his contemporary, the doctor-cum-psychotherapist Alfred Adler. The two had very different ideas of how the mind works — both of which seemed accurate, but there was no way to reconcile them.
Jung realised that there were different kinds of people, and different models worked better on each of them. Freud’s theories, he concluded, were extroverted in nature, whereas Adler’s better described introverts.
Today, Jung’s model is itself used to categorize people, but you can’t label everyone as either “introvert” or “extrovert”: there’s many shades of grey in between. These in-betweeners are called “ambiverts”. They display a balance of all these traits at different times, in response to certain situations. This is what you and I most likely are: somewhere on the spectrum between introversion and extroversion.
If you want to, though, you can define yourself as an introvert or extrovert based on the traits you are most likely to exhibit.
I find being in social and public settings very difficult and would rather stay home and watch movies with my family and close friends. So if I had to pick between the two, I would say that I’m an introvert.
But what is it that gives me these introverted qualities? Why do I daydream about my favorite protagonists, instead of focusing on math? And why am I the one in my class who tends to shy away from leadership roles?
There is a simple solution for all this: dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends messages to different parts of your nervous system. It is made from amino acids and plays a huge role in us feeling pleasure.
Now when I say “pleasure”, I of course mean to include the pleasant feeling you get while eating an ice-cream or the kick you get from scrolling through social media. But dopamine also plays a role in keeping you bright and awake. It’s involved in the satisfaction you feel at having learnt something new. Confusingly though, it’s also often involved in cases of chronic pain.
As you can guess, dopamine is very deeply connected to our mental and emotional well-being. Drug abuse and misuse occurs because dopamine is released when drugs are used, satisfying our reward system. It increases our incentive motivation — that is, our desire to do activities with the knowledge that we’ll be rewarded.
A lack of dopamine can cause mental issues like ADHD, the inability to maintain focus. Too much dopamine can cause disorders like schizophrenia. And, as you will soon see, this reward system also plays an immense role in the difference between introverts and extroverts.
A seemingly innocuous video panned across the screen, depicting the front of Cornell University’s main library. This was alternated with two other videos: one of a large portrait poster, and another which, more self-referentially, depicted the lab where these videos were playing.
These videos were part of a seven-day study at Cornell University, where a group of seventy young men was assembled with one purpose. To find out if there was any difference in the brains of introverts and extroverts. The first step was to classify them through a personality test — kind of what I went through on my browser, although a bit more advanced! This was followed by a daily video-watching session: participants were given a dose of Ritalin, a stimulant that increases dopamine levels, and then made to watch the videos to see how they reacted.
The idea was that, through repeated watching, some people would start associating certain videos with the dopamine surge. And the question to answer was: which people, which videos, and by how much?
Extroverts are risk-takers. They take risks because they react more positively to dopamine, and subconsciously, believe they will be rewarded for their risk-taking. After three days of association with the videos, it was time to start measuring results. As it turned out, extroverts tended to react more positively to the videos and the dopamine surge than non-extroverts did. The theory said that extroverts would react better to rewards, which is exactly what happened.
I said before that dopamine increases incentive motivation. Well, extroverted people act upon that motivation. And what better motivation is there than the lure of getting something for nothing?
Whether it’s playing at a casino, betting on horses, or even guessing what word Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister will start his next speech with, gambling has very appealing thrills. Though most people lose, there’s always the lure of the big prize just around the corner — maybe this time you will strike lucky!
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed things because many casinos and racetracks are closed. But with this closure, the pandemic has also opened the doors to online gambling. A pilot study conducted by the University of Bristol found that, while people ended up gambling less overall, those who did gamble did it a lot. A bit more alarming is that people whom the pandemic had put in a bad financial situation were more likely to gamble — often making their situation even worse.
So what has this got to do with introverts and extroverts? Well, an earlier study by the University of Amsterdam linked dopamine and rewards to extroverts — and the way they conducted the study involved gambling! Volunteers were asked to pick between two deals: a safer one, or a riskier one which had a higher payoff if it worked. For example, one of the choices was between an 80% chance of winning $1.25 or a 40% chance of winning $2.50: the second option has higher rewards, but you’re also more likely to lose.
The study was broad-ranging, but one of the results was that “extrovert” people had more activity in two key regions of the brain: the ‘amygdala’, which is the center for processing emotions, and the ‘nucleus accumbens’, which interfaces between motivation and action. The nucleus accumbens, incidentally, is a key player in processing dopamine.
So are extroverts more likely to take risks? We don’t know, but we do know that those who take risks are more likely to feel excited about it!
As you can see, dopamine plays a big role in excitement and extroversion. But what about introverts? Are people like me risk-averse because our brains don’t produce enough dopamine?
That is…not really the case.
A lot of these experiments on extroverts are related to subconscious processes: feeling happy, or excited, and acting differently because of that. Now it’s time to move to a part of the brain where actual, conscious thinking takes place: the frontal lobe.
Your frontal lobe is linked to internal processing. It’s the self-monitoring part of yourself that thinks “Hmm, what should I do next?” and controls your responses accordingly. If you’re consciously deciding on something or working out a problem, chances are your frontal lobe is involved.
A different study — from the University of Iowa, this time — found introverts to have a lot of activity in the frontal lobes of their brains.
So there you have it: introverts seem to have more activity in the internal, self-reflecting part of the brain, while extroverts see activity in the sensory, interacting-with-the-outside-world parts. This means that introverts are more likely to find stimuli within themselves, while extroverts get it from outside. A close match to the very definitions of introversion and extroversion!
Incidentally, one of the behavioral responses to introvert self-reflection includes the reward system. Introverts still have that reward system; they just don’t require excessive outside stimulation to fulfill it.
Did introverts really fare better during the pandemic? The answer is: yes and no. When the lockdowns began, many predicted that extroverts would see a rise in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, because their lifeline of social life was now cut off. As things turned out, they quickly adapted and went straight to planning the next Zoom happy hour.
Introverts were comfortable being in their own space at home, but they soon realized that being cooped up with the rest of the family throughout the day isn’t always “space”. That said, many did find a better sense of control over socializing — after all, it’s easier to leave a video call saying you have work than it is to leave an actual party.
Whether they were introverts or extroverts, though, the bottom-line is that everyone had to cope during the pandemic and people did it in different ways!
As for me? Well, introverts can find engagement within themselves, while extroverts are more likely to find stimuli in other places, namely other people. But I find happiness and pleasure in both being with people and in other, mundane, by-myself tasks.
So I guess I’m not really an introvert or an extrovert. Just a bit of both!