Most of us think we're either an introvert or extrovert, but is it backed up by science?

By Gary Nunn
Yoga teacher Nikki Tiedeman says lockdown has been "surprisingly OK" after finding happiness by spending more time alone. (Supplied: Nikki Tiedeman)

As COVID-19 restrictions finally begin to lift, introverts may feel anxiety and extroverts relief.

But, according to psychiatrist Carl Jung, who introduced the terms into psychology, there's actually no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert.

"Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum," he famously said.

Most people are ambiverts, he said: extrovert-introvert hybrids.

But the two terms have stuck: from dating profiles to business coaching, extraverts and introverts are loud and proud. 

The cliched extrovert is a social and confident person who gets energy from others, while an introvert is the opposite: more of a homebody who recharges alone.

So is there really such a thing as introverts and extroverts, or is it reductive pseudoscience on the complex and fluid subject of personality?

The pure introvert

Sunshine Coast resident Sandy Forster disagrees with Jung. The 62-year-old isn't in a mental asylum; she runs a successful financial coaching business. And she believes she's a pure lifelong introvert.

"I never socialise," she says, "I prefer staying home, in my own thoughts. When I walk my dog, I say hi to the dogs and ignore the humans."

Forster is so far along the introvert scale, her daughter recently remarked, "You don't have any friends". "I thought, is that such a bad thing?" she says.

Up until she was 15 years old, when her next-door neighbours greeted her Forster would be silent. "I'd love an invisibility cloak so I could just observe," she says.

She even recently climbed a cliff to avoid speaking to an approaching acquaintance.

Unsurprisingly, Queensland's relatively brief lockdowns haven't been too arduous for Forster, who believes introversion is in her DNA. "I couldn't understand why people hated lockdown so much," she says.

So, can a diehard introvert ever change?

Nicholas Haslam from the University of Melbourne says it's not inconceivable — but also not easy. "People don't mature into being more or less extroverted as they become more at peace with themselves," the Professor of psychology says.

This chimes with Forster, who says she sometimes adopts an extroverted cloak when running business retreats for clients. "It's like stepping out of my own body, becoming an actor," she says. "It's so exhausting; I get a migraine. The minute workshops are over, I retreat to recharge."

Those who changed

Corrina Lindby from Collinsville in central Queensland had a similarly introverted childhood — so much so, she didn't even attend her senior prom.

"My mother would have to answer questions directed at me," the 57-year-old says.

Corrina Lindby spent her life believing she was an introvert, but then she began to question whether it was just a reaction to being bullied as a child.  (Supplied: Corrina Lindby)

It seems worlds apart from the forthright woman I speak to today. Some of this, though, she attributes to nurture: "After being ridiculed at school, it was a defence mechanism to just say nothing and be in my own head."

How did she change from such an extreme introvert into an extrovert?

Corrina says counselling and her faith have helped her become more confident and outgoing.  (Supplied: Corrina Lindby)

"There came a point I had to decide whether to keep believing I actually was an introvert," she says. "I thought, is this the legacy I want to leave my children? I wanted to be strong and confident and model that for them."

Counselling, and her Christian faith, also helped the transition. "The bible verse, 'I can do all things with Christ's strength with me' helped," she says.

Such "self-talk", she says, can create self-fulfilling prophecies.

As Lindby became the family breadwinner, she believes her husband changed from an extrovert into an introvert as he took on the child-raising role.

"We'd go to church and the other churchgoers would quote 'unless man provides for himself, he's less of a man'," she says. "It harmed his confidence. If you tell yourself something enough, you believe it."

Extroverts are happier

Extroverts tend to experience more positive emotions than introverts, according to Professor Haslam.

"Research has sought to find why this isn't self-reinforcing — to harvest happiness, why don't we all just act in a more extroverted way?" he says.

"Introverts can find that somewhat exhausting/inauthentic. It's like going against gravity ... No one really wants to become more introverted."

Extrovert to introvert

But yoga teacher Nikki Tiedeman says she happily did just that. The 36-year-old from the NSW Central Coast previously worked in sales.

"As a team leader, you had to inspire others to be part of the very social workplace culture," she says.

After thriving on it in her 20s, becoming a yoga teacher in her 30s transformed her. "Over time it felt forced. I came to hate small talk and large groups — you never got to connect on a deeper level," she says.

“I was conditioned to think being extroverted and having loads of friends would lead to fulfilment," says Nikki. (Supplied: Nikki Tiedeman)

Yoga has connected her to her introverted side: "I was conditioned to think being extroverted and having loads of friends would lead to fulfilment. I never asked if I was doing this because society said I should."

When she did stop, she realised how uncomfortable big groups made her. "I now prefer to look inward to things that satisfy me," she says.

"To re-energise I need reflective alone time. Surprisingly, lockdown has been OK. As I grow older I become more in tune with what I want."

Myers Briggs and dating

Whether or not you subscribe to the controversial Myers Briggs personality type descriptors, they'll likely have an impact on who will date you and who will employ you.

Yet Jessica Alderson swears by it. She fell in love with an Australian and moved to Sydney in 2017 to be with him. When the relationship didn't work out, she set up her own dating site — So Synced — which uses an algorithm to match partners using the Myers Briggs types.

"We pair couples who have just the right amount of difference and similarity to create that spark," she says.

Myers Briggs is used in many workplaces, including most military branches in the US and England and 80 of the Fortune 100 companies, but it's contentious.

Jessica Alderson, who founded a personality-based dating app, swears by the controversial Myers Briggs test.  (Supplied: So Synced )

Several analyses find the test ineffective. "Myers Briggs has a very low reputation within academic psychology," Professor Haslam says.

"The theory is based on a dog's breakfast. It believes human beings belong to types, when research shows they don't."

Although people often think the types describe them well, this could be the Forer-Barnum effect, similarly used in horoscopes: when individuals believe that ambiguous personality descriptions apply specifically to them.

"Any label can limit your horizons," Professor Haslam says. "A poor manager would assign tasks only on people's personality tests."

A new Binge documentary, Persona, reveals the Myers Briggs tests play to racist, sexist and ableist tropes because the questions were designed by the white managerial class.

The science

"Without a doubt, introverts and extroverts exist along a scale," Professor Haslam says. "Every personality psychologist over the last 100 years has recognised that — it fits in with the big five [personality traits] theory: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism."

The problem comes, he says, when people see the personality traits as fixed binaries rather than a continuum, in constant flux: "This idea has taken hold it's where you get your energy from, but [academic psychologists] wouldn't talk about it like that. You don't need to talk about ambiverts if you appreciate the continuum — most of us are in the middle. There's no more an introverted extrovert than there is a short tall person or a tall short person."

Carl Jung's theory, Professor Haslam says, was unscientific — but more recent studies have shown that personality characteristics are approximately 40 per cent inherited; the rest is experiencing and learnt behaviour.

He blames Susan Cain, the author of two books on introverts, for "romanticising" them. "She gives them all these additional attributes: being bookish and creative. They're really not part of introversion at all," he says.

Melbourne based psychologist Donna Cameron offers a word of warning:

"Often when a person labels themselves as introverted or extroverted, they're at risk of acting out these roles more than they really need to."

Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist.


What is inkl?

Important stories

See news based on value, not advertising potential. Get the latest news from around the world.

Trusted newsrooms

We bring you reliable news from the world’s most experienced journalists in the most trusted newsrooms.

Ad-free reading

Read without interruptions, distractions or intrusions of privacy.