Do Introverts and Extroverts See Reality Differently? (And What Does This Question Have to Do With Your Relationships?)

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facevasepicill Do Introverts and Extroverts See Reality Differently? (And What Does This Question Have to Do With Your Relationships?)“Are Extroverts Ruining Psychologists’ Surveys?”

So read the LiveScience headline, in an article describing research findings that extroverts answer survey questions with more extreme responses than introverts do. It doesn’t matter what type of question it is. Whether asked to rate how much they liked a photo of a nature scene, or how disgusted they’d be upon finding a caterpillar in their salad, the results were the same – extroverts reported more intense reactions than introverts did.

This raises the question: do extroverts actually experience life in extremes, or are they just more inclined to declarative statements? If the answer is the latter, then extroverts’ instinct for hyperbole can interfere with “scientists’ efforts to paint an objective view of the world,” writes LiveScience reporter Rachael Rettner.

According to one scientist I spoke to while researching my book, however, the answer may be the former, at least when it comes to positive emotions like joy and delight. Extroverts are known for  “up-regulating” these feelings – for accentuating the positive, says Rick Howard, University of Nottingham psychology professor, while introverts are more likely to simply take their emotions as they find them.

Let’s put aside the value judgments that inevitably flow from such observations (Are extroverts more optimistic, i.e., “good”? Are they simplistic – i.e, “bad”?)

Instead let’s ask what it means for our personal relationships if introverts and extoverts tend to experience very different realities.

Donna McMillan, the St. Olaf College psychologist who conducted the study and considers herself an extrovert, recalls the time she and her husband made bruschetta to bring to a party:

“I said something outlandish like ‘I think this is the best bruschetta in the world!” Her husband, who tends to be more introverted, responded, “It is good.”

“I’m not sure, but I think we might equally like the bruschetta,” McMillan told LiveScience. “But I’m not sure.”

If two people look at the same event, in other words, and one feels X about it while the other feels X plus 1, or X plus 10, then it’s it’s harder for them to enjoy a sense of mutual experience. There’s also the potential for misunderstanding. If I say the bruschetta is “the best thing ever” and you say “yeah, it’s good,” I’m going to feel deflated. But if you feel that you have to pretend it’s the best thing ever when you don’t really think it is, you’re going to feel like you have to be inauthentic around me.

This is yet another example of why we need to truly understand other people’s cognitive and emotional maps – so we don’t take our differences personally.

This also explains a phenomenon I noticed when conducting interviews for my book: that introverts tend to fear extroverts thinking them too serious, while extroverts worry that introverts think they are “too much” or “too silly.”

What do you think about this research? Have you noticed these patterns in your own life?

 


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36 Comments

  1. Catherine on 22.08.2011 at 12:42 (Reply)

    Funny, because I’ve always worried that I ruin psychology surveys by overthinking the questions!

  2. Arlin Cuncic on 22.08.2011 at 13:10 (Reply)

    I have noticed this in my own life. My extroverted husband asks why I never get excited about anything. I wonder how he and his family can possibly be so excited about everything that comes along. It is an interesting question whether it is a difference in what we feel, or how we express it. I really don’t know.

  3. EJ on 22.08.2011 at 13:38 (Reply)

    I think that it might be a little of both. Because our society’s dominant culture is extroverted, there are times when even extroverts act more excited about things than they really are. There are also introverts (and possibly some extroverts) who gauge their audience and react at different levels in order to most effectively get their message across.

  4. Susan on 22.08.2011 at 17:21 (Reply)

    It’s a very interesting question. One of my best friends is an extrovert — and very dramatic. She’s always making sweeping statements — sometimes, to my mind, with little reason for doing so. She’s never “meh” on anything — she always has strong opinions one way or another.

    But my sister is also an extrovert and I don’t find her as extreme in her reactions or opinions.

    You could say it’s all a matter of perspective — but the idea that there’s more to it than that is intriguing.

  5. Susan Cain on 22.08.2011 at 17:36 (Reply)

    A close and extremely extroverted friend of mine read this post, and here were her reactions. Thought they might interest you, since we naturally tend to have mostly introverts commenting here:

    ” The most important point in your post is that extroverts truly mean what we say…it is the best. We aren’t exaggerating. Although to an introvert that’s what it might sound and look like.

    You’ll appreciate this. When we were on vacation in London with the kids last fall, I was just one big rambling monologue of “This is great…” “Isn’t this beautiful…” “Can you believe this is 600 years old…” More than once I looked at my [introverted] husband and said, “Are you having fun?” Each time, he’d say, “Yes, of course” in his lovely calm manner. Then thinking that I was looking for more, he’d say again in a more animated yet completely artificial way, “Yes!” We just laughed each time.

    Again, it is just about understanding each other. Your work has made me so aware of the nuances in the behavior of the different types. We each bring something to the table. If I’d married an extrovert like me, we’d exhaust each other. With both my husband and me shepherding the kids through London, they got both the enthusiasm of go, go but also the peaceful downtime that I’ve come to treasure too.”

    I think this comment is very illuminating…it also raised new questions for me, though, because if I were touring London with my family, I’d do the exact same thing as my very extroverted friend. I tend to gush a lot when I’m in beautiful or inspiring places, albeit probably in a softer voice than she uses.

  6. Rachael on 22.08.2011 at 20:14 (Reply)

    So glad you blogged about my article, Susan! I found out about this study when I attended the American Psychological Association meeting a few weeks ago. This was my second year attending the meeting, and I always look for research on introversion/personality because I find this topic really interesting (in part because I’m an introvert myself).

    The findings definitely made sense to me. I have friends who are extroverts who will often make extreme statements like something is the “best/worst” thing in the world. As other commenters have pointed out, and as other research suggests, they really might be experiencing these feelings more intensely.

    It’s a good point you bring up, about what this means for our relationships. Sometimes I worry that I am not doing a good enough job at expressing gratitude after receiving a gift, even if I really do like it!

    I think (and this is just my opinion) it’s not that introverts don’t experience true joy/happiness at the level that extroverts do, but that these strong emotions may come less often than they do for extroverts, and for select situations.

    One thing the researcher told me that didn’t go into this article is it might be that extroverts are choosing the more extreme responses as a way to stimulate themselves. She said that everyone has an optimal level of cortical arousal. If you have too little, you’re bored, and if you have too much, you’re anxious. People try to stay in a middle zone. One theory is that introverts may already be at a higher level of cortical arousal, so they don’t need to seek out as much stimulation as extroverts do (it even takes more anesthesia to get introverts unconscious). Extroverts may seek stimulation in the form of social situations, etc., and perhaps, by answering “absolutely yes!” on a survey.

    1. Phil Holmes on 22.08.2011 at 22:32 (Reply)

      There is a lovely study summarized in the MBTI Manual (Consultant Psychologists Press, 1998, 3rd edition, pp 188-190) that suggests different levels of cortical arousal between introverts and extraverts. Keeping all other MBTI preferences equal, the authors exposed clear extraverts and clear introverts to similar stimulation and measured the resulting levels of cortical arousal. Extraverts consistently showed LESS cortical arousal than introverts. As the manual’s authors put it (p. 189), “The authors hypothesize that the relatively greater cortical arousal of Introverts leads to their seeking to reduce stimulation from the environment….” In my experience using the MBTI and quizzing introverts in my classes, I find this to be true, especially when Introverts live with Extraverts. Introverts report turning down lights, turning down radios and televisions, etc. I tell my participants, “Extraverts always feel that they are too far away from the source of stimulation and move toward it; Introverts feel that they are too close to the source of stimulation and tend to move away.” Perhaps that is why Extraverts exhibit more extreme responses? They tend to crave greater levels of arousal – so, to put it bluntly and crudely, they have the “room” for greater arousal.

      1. Susan Cain on 23.08.2011 at 19:06 (Reply)

        Thx for sharing that, Phil. Yes, the research on arousal is really interesting. Introverts have been found to be more aroused by coffee, lemon juice on the tongue, noise…There’s one experiment showing that introverts solve problems best at lower noise levels and extroverts at higher ones. If you make extroverts work in too quiet a setting, their performance goes down, and the same thing happens for introverts when they work in loud environments.

        As for “Introverts report turning down lights, turning down radios and televisions, etc.” — that happens in my house every day!

        1. Phil Holmes on 23.08.2011 at 20:39 (Reply)

          Susan, I do the same thing. I’ll wake up in the early morning and not turn on a single light for 2 hours. When I think of hell, I imagine a place full of overhead lighting. And after a long week at work, especially a week that has involved a lot of training or back-to-back meetings, I swear that my head feels like it is still ringing, like a large bell that has been too soundly rung.

        2. David C. on 27.08.2011 at 07:03 (Reply)

          I am just the opposite. Even though I’m very introverted, I feel better in bright light and with background noise. I work better with music loud enough to filter everything else out. In the loud music, I somehow find the silence I need to concentrate. For whatever reason, it tones down the debate society in my head and allows me to move forward.

    2. SaltySam on 09.01.2012 at 22:29 (Reply)

      “The most important point in your post is that extroverts truly mean what we say…it is the best. We aren’t exaggerating. Although to an introvert that’s what it might sound and look like.”

      She sounds young.

  7. Canaan on 22.08.2011 at 22:33 (Reply)

    Thought provoking stuff; well done everyone. My reaction is that this is a very American phenomenon. In our extroverted modern culture the ‘woo-hoo’s!’ and ‘oh my gods!’ “hell ya’s!” come fast and thick, even in response to mundane matters that do not really call for hyperbole: someone looks good at a party; a sports star does what he or she is paid to do in an unimportant game, etc. It just seems so many feel compelled to amp up the rhetoric to show, or establish or demonstrate that they are having this extraordinarily good time even in highly un-extraordinary contexts – as thought they are letting themselves or some imaginary crowd of observers down if they’re not having THE BEST TIME EVER and whooping it up so everyone sees and knows it (think of a frat party or a Yankees crowd in a bar). My point is that I don’ really see much of this kind of over the top, exaggerated rating of quotidian events when I’m in Europe or Asia or elsewhere, where folks tend to be more demure, poised, blase, nonchalant than Americans. Even Canadians are, well, quieter…I think there is something specifically American at play here…

  8. Anne Elliot on 23.08.2011 at 09:13 (Reply)

    Fascinating! I had never thought of it this way – I, for one, almost never check the most extreme option on a survey unless I am genuinely feeling that strongly about the question, which doesn’t happen all the time.

    I have noticed that my more extroverted friends appear either to feel things more strongly than I do or at least to show strong emotions more readily. Obviously, this can sometimes cause problems in relationships – one of my extroverted college roommates once remarked that she worried her boundless enthusiasm puts some people off. She is a lot of fun to be around, but I could rarely match her level of excitement, so it often felt like we didn’t quite click.

    The discussion above about natural levels of stimulation makes a lot of sense to me. I tend to feel that I am easily overstimulated or overwhelmed and usually make more of an effort to keep things at a level that I can manage rather than seek out additional stimuli.

    p.s. Not to get all extroverted on you, but since I haven’t visited the page in a few weeks – I like the new picture!

    1. Susan Cain on 23.08.2011 at 19:07 (Reply)

      Thank you Anne!

  9. K Mathews on 23.08.2011 at 16:17 (Reply)

    I’m about as introverted as they come but was taken back by your statement, “This raises the question: do extroverts actually experience life in extremes, or are they just more inclined to overstatement?” The first thought that came to my mind was,”Why do you assume that it is the extrovert who’s perception is incorrect.” I find that when I take a survey, I hesitate to mark the most extreme answer, whether positive or negative. If I’m rating something between one and ten, I will never give a ten. I feel that things are never at the most extreme end. Perhaps it is me that is skewing the results.

    I like this website but sometimes cringe a bit when I read certain statements that insinuate the because we are introverted we are more intelligent, more insightful, more in touch, more correct.

    1. Susan Cain on 23.08.2011 at 18:00 (Reply)

      Thx, K Mathews, for being willing to be so honest. I constantly struggle between trying to point out the often undersold virtues of introversion, vs. trying NOT to promote a kind of introvert chauvinism, which I really don’t believe in. My aim is to have balance between the types, with the world benefitting equally from both kinds. But I’m sure that I don’t always get the balance right.

      That said, your take is so interesting because I hadn’t thought of the phrasing of that sentence as being critical of extroversion. Now that I re-read it, I can see how it appears that way, but I think it didn’t occur to me because I actually find this penchant of extroverts to live in extremes/express things in extreme ways to be — well, extremely delightful. I always enjoy people who think the bruschetta is the best thing ever. My husband, an extrovert, is like this, and I love this quality in him. On any given day I could probably think of a dozen examples. Here’s just one from today. This morning, I found out that my book is going to be bought by a Chinese publishing house and translated into Mandarin. I was happy, but quickly moved on. But my husband was ecstatic and has been talking all day about how we need to go out and celebrate, and how we have to clear off a mantle in our kitchen so we’ll have a place to display the book in various languages. Truly I don’t feel the need for such things, and they don’t occur to me, but I find it so generous and charming that he does. He is like this about all kinds of things.

      Still, as I think about it, the word “overstatement,” in the sentence you highlight, is probably pejorative.

      1. Greg on 19.06.2012 at 08:54 (Reply)

        Hi Susan, been reading your book (about halfway through so far) and finding it fascinating and illuminating. I’d really like to get my wife to read it too and although she could read it in English, it would be considerably quicker and easier if she could read it in Chinese. I was wondering if the Chinese translation was available yet and if so from where. Either simplified (china mainland) or traditional (Hong Kong, Taiwan) chinese characters would be fine. Many Thanks.

        1. eilly yang on 13.08.2012 at 05:13 (Reply)

          Hi there,

          I was wondering if you found the chinese translation yet? And what it’s called or which website to purchase from.

    2. jose on 25.10.2012 at 00:04 (Reply)

      we are lol

  10. Debbie Sladek on 23.08.2011 at 22:47 (Reply)

    I see this misunderstanding of temperaments quite often in my workplace. I have a couple of colleagues who are extroverts and they often say how reserved I am, or how overly serious I take things. I think they tend to be effusive and brash and share too much. It’s a good thing to remember we simply have different styles, and I am encourage to really own my introversion and the positive things I bring to work because of it.

  11. Joseph on 24.08.2011 at 07:45 (Reply)

    Glad to know that your book will be published in Chinese language. Congratulation for that.

    I have been regularly reading your posts but sometimes I get stucked thinking whether these are meant to berate extroverts or overrate the extroverts. In some posts, the author encourages introverts to join toastmasters, which I think really good, to speak like (at least) the extroverts. While in the other posts, the author illustrates the good qualities of the introverts as if they don’t need to change their personality. While both the personalities have its own pros and cons, it is better to take position only on one.

    Good luck!.

    1. Susan Cain on 24.08.2011 at 08:36 (Reply)

      Thanks, Joseph! To answer your question, my posts are not meant to berate OR overrate extroverts. They’re meant to promote appreciation for both types of people, an understanding that the world needs both kinds as much as it needs both men and women. I also believe that introverts should appreciate their own good qualities, and not feel they need to change themselves fundamentally, BUT can act a little more extroverted here and there when it’s useful. That’s why I encourage introverts who are uncomfortable with public speaking to go to Toastmasters. But I don’t think they need to speak like extroverts — they can develop public speaking styles that are authentic AND powerful.

      Hope that’s helpful.

  12. Barb Markway on 24.08.2011 at 12:06 (Reply)

    This is a really good discussion. I remember in graduate school studying Jung and I think he talked about healthy personality development in terms of developing one’s “shadow side.” For example, that introverts need to push themselves (gently) toward the E end, and vice versa. And of course, he talked about other dimensions of personality, and the need for balance. I wish I still had all my old books from grad school!

    1. Susan Cain on 24.08.2011 at 12:22 (Reply)

      Yes, my favorite Jung quote is something about how no one is all introvert or all extrovert — that “such a man would be in a lunatic asylum.”

    2. Susan Cain on 24.08.2011 at 12:24 (Reply)

      P.S. Barb, I was just going through the manuscript of my book, and see that I cited your book on children, in my chapter on introverted kids. This was long before we began chatting via this website!

      1. Barb Markway on 24.08.2011 at 15:04 (Reply)

        Cool! Did you get the books I sent you? I mailed them last week.

  13. Rachel on 24.08.2011 at 15:28 (Reply)

    My experience is that extroverts tend to react quickly while introverts tend to react in stages. The extrovert’s immediate judgment of “This is the best!” or “This is the worst!” is sincere but not very durable; tomorrow, the extrovert may deem something else the best or the worst instead. The introvert’s initial judgment is likely to be milder; it takes the introvert a little while to become fully aware of his thoughts and feelings, but when the considered response comes, it will be more durable than the extrovert’s response.

    Perhaps the reason why introverts and extroverts respond differently to surveys is that surveys–especially phone surveys–tend to require an immediate response. I’m an introvert, and I know researchers get better, more accurate data from me when they give me the survey in writing and a few days or a week to fill it out at leisure.

  14. [...] is not? I’m not even sure it works to just ask them (as I did with the poll above), because introverts have been found to give less extreme answers on polls than extroverts do. They might be less likely to check off the “extremely happy” [...]

  15. Callistus on 06.12.2011 at 00:15 (Reply)

    What I’d call happy in my experience, is not an ecstatic show of emotion but a rather inward satisfaction or ”happiness” – if you like to call it that. Not that I don’t find myself in occassions that require ”celebration”, but I find it just adequate to keep it on a low level to help me contain my excitement and probably not embarass myself.

  16. Traci on 06.12.2011 at 12:04 (Reply)

    As an “extrovert” who is highly sensitive to stimulation (don’t like loud noise, crowds, bright lights, lots of activity, etc), I find this post very interesting.

    I’ve always gotten high scores on extroversion on psychological and definitely get energy from being around other people, but I don’t see myself making many strong declarative statements or acting especially enthusiastic unless I’m experiencing something really new and exciting (going to London would definitely qualify). I can be enthusiastic in a group setting if the group is working toward a goal and the energy in the room is dynamic, but put me in a crowded mall with lots of noise and movement and I can’t wait to get out of there.

    Just wanted to add my n of 1. Food for thought…

  17. [...] is really the same for introverts and extroverts. As Susan Cain points out two people might equally like bruschetta but the introvert might say it is good, while [...]

  18. The introvert thing. | petropunk on 26.06.2012 at 12:58

    [...] Susan Cain has done a lot of research on the subject and wrote a pretty cool book about it, which is where a lot of these newer attitudes are coming from. What people don’t get is that the difference is purely cognitive, not social. There are extraverts with social anxiety and there are introverts who can be the life of the party when it suits. [...]

  19. Nikki on 08.08.2012 at 11:53 (Reply)

    This is really interesting. I am an introvert, but this is one area where I tend to act more extroverted. When I’m with friends, I usually am the person to have the strongest reaction to things (e.i. this is the best/worst in the world) and when I was reading my classmates’ personality test answers as part of a psychology project, I my answers were much more extreme than my classmates’ (a lot of the highest and lowest ratings rather than the middle). But I guess most of us aren’t 100 percent introverted or extroverted.

  20. Renee on 30.10.2012 at 10:10 (Reply)

    Sadly, introverts can easily misunderstand each others’ reactions precisely because they are so understated. A introverted ex of mine told me that he and his ex-wife went on an extended honeymoon to an developing nation. It seemed to him that they were both having a nice time. Years later she revealed to him that she had not enjoyed it at all. They were on their honeymoon for 2 months. That’s quite a communication breakdown.

  21. Jim on 17.03.2013 at 14:55 (Reply)

    I am 69 years old and a dyed in the wool introvert – who has learned to be outgoing, even perform. I even get criticized for being too loud and gushy sometimes.
    Yesterday my wife – who is generally much more extro than I am – and I went to a memorial party for a good friend of mine’s father, then went to a restaurant we’d never been to before, went for a walk and saw some Irish music and dancing, and then went to the Joffrey Ballet. It was all good. Today I just want to be in my room – she’s downstairs watching ice skating on the TV – and be quiet.
    While we’re on that subject I’m the one always turning lights down, and though I like the TV loud, when I get in the car I turn the radio off, because when she gets in the car she turns the radio on. I drive for hours without it and sometimes sit for an hour when I’m by myself without moving. As an aside, I literally read three times as fast as she does.
    I’d love to see you do at least a full chapter in your next book on how introverts experience their sexuality. Or don’t. God. Other people are often like the tar baby to me. I want closeness, very much, but under the cover of my learned ability to be outgoing, I cringe every time I see someone walking toward the door of the bookstore I work in. Yeah. Bookstore. naturally.
    I can speak on stage, sing in front of people, and then I go hide, to recharge. For some people being with others is the charge. For me it’s the drain. I had a great time yesterday – I knew I would – but ahead of time I dreaded all of it. Fortunately, I have enough experience to know I should go ahead, and worry about it as little as possible. But sometimes when I try to speak in front of people extemporaneously, I freeze up, and can’t find my words. And look stupid.
    It’s hard to reach out in a sexual way when your whole personality trends in the direction of preferring to be reached in to (so there’s no risk of rejection). Things get buried deeper and deeper and for me, this all leads in the direction of submissive sexuality. I’d love to find out more about other introverts experiences in this direction and contribute to another book if you’re writing one.

  22. Kellie on 22.05.2013 at 16:37 (Reply)

    Interesting. I am a strong introvert and I find, occasionally, that my friends will make comments like this: “what do you mean [you're happy person x won an Oscar for her role in movie y]? You hated that movie!” “No,” I say. “I never said I hated the movie. You asked me what I thought and I said the narrative arc wobbled.” “Well … okay.”

    I find a lot of people are just irrational over judgments. For example: unable to understand that my making a negative statement about a politician doesn’t mean I won’t vote for him. People tend to put things in the “I like it! It’s really good!” or “I don’t like it! It’s really bad!” baskets.

    I have a lot of baskets, that’s all.

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