Blog #60 – Do introverts need to behave like extroverts?
Earlier in this series, we looked at key markers that influence happiness. One of the recurring findings in this line of research is that behaviours linked with extraversion tend to correlate with high levels of happiness and well-being.
As I alluded to at that time, such findings can pose difficult or uncomfortable questions for introverts, yet the idea that these individuals should seek to ape extraverts to become happier seems counterintuitive at first glance. After all, when we refer to extraverts and introverts, we are talking about different personality types, and therefore it seems reasonable to suppose that what works for one will not necessarily work for the other. However, some research findings have told a different story, suggesting that we can all benefit from consciously embracing the outward looking, sociable behaviour that can be second nature to those high in extraversion.
But can it really be as simple as that? Is behaving as extraverts behave a way to boost happiness across the board, no matter what your natural personality leanings?
Something about this line of inquiry sits uncomfortably with me. Perhaps it is because I regard myself as more of an introvert than an extravert, and thus feel it a little more personally than some of the topics I write about, but it seems sometimes that there is an unspoken assumption operating here to the effect that we should all aspire to behave as extraverts do, whether that is our natural inclination or not, and that introverts somehow need to be rescued from their own nature.
As mentioned when writing about this topic before, it is not accurate to imagine that introverts are miserable people living in isolation, occasionally peering out through curtains from attic windows, yearning to somehow become more extraverted in the hope that they will then finally become happy. There are different paths to happiness, and not all of them involve typical extravert behaviours. Just as an extravert might not be drawn to the prospect of a quiet night in on their own reading a book, so too an introvert may not necessarily benefit from trying to be the life of the party in a large group. Neither activity is ‘wrong’ per se, the problem (if we can call it that) relates to the idea that one-size-fits-all as it relates to happiness-boosting activities.
And yet, as mentioned above, there are research findings out there to the effect that everyone, including introverts, can benefit from consciously engaging in extraverted behaviours. Is that the final word on the matter? Is it accurate to say that no matter what your personality, acting as extraverts do will make you happier?
This question (among others) is being tackled in a new study currently available online in pre-print form, i.e., the paper is going through the formal submission process and changes may be made before it finally appears in printed form in an academic journal.
In “Costs and Benefits of Acting Extraverted: A Randomized Controlled Trial”, authors Rowan Jacques-Hamilton, Jessie Sun, and Luke D. Smillie note the existence of research showing that extraverted behaviour has been linked with increases in positive affect, but note that the consequences of sustaining extraverted behaviour on an ongoing basis have not been widely investigated. Against this backdrop, they set as their mission the exploration of the consequences for positive and negative well-being of increasing and extending real-world extraverted behaviour.
Participants were assigned to either a one-week “Act Extraverted” intervention or an active control group (instructed to engage in a range of non-extraverted behaviours). Those assigned to the extraverted behaviour group received the following instructions: “In your interactions with other people across the next week, act in a bold, talkative, outgoing, active, and assertive way, as much as possible.” Outcomes were assessed using a range of relevant measures, including questionnaires for personality, positive and negative affect, trait authenticity, and tiredness.
Among the key findings reported were that participants in the active condition had higher levels of extraverted behaviour, positive affect, and authenticity, but that the effects of the intervention varied “as a function of trait extraversion.” On this latter point, the authors reported that “although more extraverted participants showed all of the above effects, plus lower levels of tiredness, more introverted participants reported smaller increases in extraverted behavior and PA, increased NA, reduced authenticity, and increased tiredness.”
So, what is the take-home message here? It appears that, yes, it is possible for introverts to experience increased positive results arising from engaging in extraverted behaviour, but this will be most effective among those who are no more than moderately introverted. The more introverted an individual is, the less benefit they are likely to derive from such activities, while engaging in activities that seem to go against your natural inclinations for a prolonged period can lead to increased levels of fatigue (the strain of faking it?) and also a sense of inauthenticity (not being true to yourself).
You can read the full paper here: https://psyarxiv.com/8ze6w/
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.