A self-affirmation movement centred on introverted personality is causing gentle ripples throughout popular psychology. Susan Cain, author of a best-selling book on introversion, has dubbed this movement the “quiet revolution”.
This is the story of an underdog having its day: Western society tends to devalue and marginalise introverts, but introverts can be a proud people, with strengths that are seldom appreciated. Now, with the help of advocates like Susan Cain, many are standing up to say so (quietly).
It’s a compelling tale, but what does psychological science have to say about introverts? (Post continues after gallery.)
What does it mean to be an introvert?
Decades of research has shown that personality is organised in terms of five broad traits:
- Conscientiousness: industriousness, orderliness, dependability
- Agreeableness: politeness, compassion, kindness
- Neuroticism: anxiety, moodiness, irritability
- Openness to experience: curiosity, imaginativeness, insightfulness, and
- Extraversion: boldness, talkativeness, outgoingness
Everyone’s personality can be described in terms of where they lie on each of these five dimensions. In this scheme, an introvert is simply the opposite of an extravert, so they’re a person who is relatively quiet, reserved and shy. If you tend to keep in the background, let others drive the conversation, etc, chances are you’re an introvert.
In pop culture, however, introversion means much more than quietness. In her book, Susan Cain describes introverts as:
Reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, [and] thick-skinned.
When describing herself, Cain lists her introverted qualities as “thinking before I speak, disliking conflict, and concentrating easily”, as well as having “a strong inner life”.
Through the lens of personality science, it’s difficult to see how many of these descriptions relate to the extraversion-introversion continuum, or indeed to one another. In addition to introversion (unassuming, calm, solitude-seeking, shy), there are traces of conscientiousness (concentration, deliberation), agreeableness (modest, gentle, disliking conflict) and openness to experience (reflective, cerebral, bookish, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, introspective).
This is because the popular conception of introversion is really a blend of several distinct personality traits.
Apples and oranges?
Much of this is old news. Popular writers are aware of the scientific definition of introversion and tend to explicitly contrast it with their own. On the other hand, academics are aware of the popular definition and tend to pointedly ignore it.