Introversion and Extraversion: Each Has Strengths

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What are introversion and extraversion? How are the two personality types different and are there any similarities?

Introversion and extraversion are two of the key terms that identify a person’s personality type. These terms were popularized in 1921 by psychologist Carl Jung.

Keep reading to see what introversion and extraversion say about an individual’s personality, as well as what this information cannot tell you about someone.

Introversion and Extraversion

Psychologist Carl Jung’s 1921 book Personality Types popularized the terms introversion and extraversion as keys to one’s personality. The Myers-Briggs personality test used by many organizations is based on Jung’s theories of introversion and extroversion. But today there’s no universally accepted definition based on objective criteria.

What Is Introversion?

What differentiates introversion and extraversion? The definition is still not completely agreed upon, and has changed over the years.

He described introverts as internally focused on thoughts and feelings and extroverts as externally focused on people and activities. Introverts focus on analyzing events while extroverts want to be part of events. Introverts draw energy from being alone while extroverts are energized by interacting with others.

Some personality psychologists belong to the “Big Five” school, believing that personality consists of five core traits: extroversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. They define introversion by qualities introverts lack—assertiveness, sociability—rather than by their attributes.

Some think Jung’s ideas are outdated, while others still tout them. But many psychological researchers agree on several key points:

  • Introverts and extroverts require different levels of external stimulation to function effectively. Introverts need less outside stimulation—for instance, they prefer to work alone, spend free time alone, or visit with just one or two friends. Extroverts need a lot of stimulation, typically from social activities and busy environments.
  • Introverts and extroverts have different work styles. Introverts focus on one task at a time, work methodically, and have a great ability to concentrate. They’re not motivated by external rewards. Extroverts jump into jobs quickly, multitask, take risks, and make quick decisions. They may be motivated by factors such as competition and status.
  • They have different styles of interaction. Introverts can be sociable but soon tire of being in large groups or parties. They listen, think before speaking, and may express themselves better in writing. They dislike conflict and small talk. Extroverts are gregarious, assertive, dominant, and comfortable with conflict. They don’t like to be alone.

Introverts are stereotyped as recluses or loners who dislike people. This may be true of some introverts, but most are as friendly as anyone. Another stereotype is that introverts are shy. Although some introverts may be shy, like T.S. Eliot, there are key differences between introversion and shyness. Shy people dislike social situations because they’re afraid of embarrassment, while introverts dislike social situations because they’re too stimulating. 

It’s actually possible to be a shy extrovert, like Barbra Streisand, who has stage fright, or an introvert who’s not shy, like Bill Gates. To further complicate things, an introvert who’s not speaking because she’s overstimulated and an extrovert who’s not speaking due to shyness can both come across as shy.

Introverts also may be “highly sensitive,” which is a psychological term meaning more apt to respond with strong feelings to something—for instance, to be moved by music or a sad story or be upset by violence. Researchers don’t know how many introverts are highly sensitive, but they’ve determined that 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts.

The Extrovert Ideal

We’ve built our society almost entirely around extroversion. In school systems, for example, this is reflected in the way classrooms are organized and taught: Desks are arranged to facilitate group projects and high levels of interaction and activity. Most teachers believe students should be extroverts.

In the workplace, we’re expected to engage in relentless self-promotion to develop and promote our personal “brand.” To advance in many careers, extroversion usually is essential. 

Introverts, as both children and adults, are constantly pushed to be more outgoing. Parents and teachers urge children to “come out of their shell” and be more sociable and to participate more in class. Adults are chided for being “in their head” too much, or seen as disengaged at work when they want to think rather than react off the cuff.

But this focus on extroversion has downsides. One downside in the business world is a preference for “Groupthink” that prioritizes teamwork above all. It’s based on the erroneous belief that creativity and intellectual achievement come from collaboration. In reality, an exclusive focus on teamwork actually undercuts creativity, which requires solitude and intense concentration (two things associated with introverts).

Groupthink is responsible for three work phenomena that hinder creativity:

  • Open offices: Many companies have implemented open-office designs with no walls or private offices and little or no privacy. However, studies have shown that open-office designs create noise, disruption, and stress, which reduce rather than enhance productivity.
  • Multitasking: Businesses prize multitasking as a way to get more done, but it doesn’t work. Research shows that the brain can’t focus on two things at the same time—it actually switches back and forth between tasks, which lowers productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50%.
  • Brainstorming: While businesses use team brainstorming to spur creativity, research over the last forty years has underscored that team brainstorming doesn’t generate better ideas. 

Alternatives to the Extrovert Ideal, at Work and in Schools

The way to encourage creativity and achievement while avoiding the pitfalls of Groupthink is to redesign the collaboration process so it incorporates the strengths of both introversion and extraversion. For example:

  • Balance the membership of groups with both introverts and extroverts, and assign tasks in accordance with people’s strengths. Incorporate both introvert and extrovert approaches to problem-solving (reflection and decisiveness).
  • Use online brainstorming. In contrast to brainstorming in a group meeting, well-managed online brainstorming groups are effective at generating ideas. The online environment is more conducive to thoughtful give-and-take, at which introverts excel, because it diminishes the grandstanding that occurs in face-to-face groups.
  • Create flexible work environments where people can choose to connect in social spaces or to work alone in a quiet space. 
  • In schools, we should teach children to work with others but also to work independently.

Are Extroverts Ideal Leaders?

Another downside of a focus on extroversion is the business world’s unbalanced preference for bold, charismatic leaders. Many extroverted leaders are highly reward-sensitive, meaning that when obsessed with the potential for a big payoff, they may act irrationally and ignore warning signs of problems ahead. The author argues that rash decisions fueled by unbridled extroversion led to the fall of Enron and the 2008 financial crisis.

Multiple studies indicate that extroversion is overrated when it comes to effective leadership. A Brigham Young study of 128 CEOs of major companies found that those viewed as charismatic didn’t perform any better than less-charismatic leaders. Further, some research shows that introverted leaders perform better than extroverted leaders in certain circumstances, such as when managing proactive (rather than passive) employees. Researchers concluded that introverts are effective at leading proactive employees because they tend to listen and are more willing to implement suggestions as opposed to dominating the situation.

It’s important for companies to have both introversion and extraversion in leadership roles in order to maximize employee output.

Introversion and Extraversion: Each Has Strengths

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Here's what you'll find in our full Quiet: The Power of Introverts summary:

  • How society overvalues extroverts
  • Why introverts' overlooked strengths are the key to greater success in work, school, and society
  • How extroversion caused the fall of Enron

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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