Introverts and extroverts: are they really polar opposites?

introverts and extroverts

Amy sits in the classroom staring at the clock, chewing the end of her pen. She works out in her head that there’s only 17 minutes until the end of her lunch break, and then a 55-minute lesson after that. Add this to the 10-minute walk when leaving the building and there are exactly 92 minutes until she can put her headphones in and relax.

Amy sighs with relief and puts her head back in her book, gracefully ignoring the aimless chit chat going on around her. Three minutes later, she looks back up at the clock and groans to herself as a girl called Nicola comes strolling over from the group of friends she’d been chatting to and starts telling her about her weekend. Amy doesn’t interrupt, but continues to countdown the minutes in her head until Nicola, to her disappointment, realises that lunchtime is nearly over and leaves.

Amy is an introvert and Nicola is an extrovert. These are terms that everyone seems to be familiar with, but what do they really mean?

For most people, the term ‘introvert’ is simply associated with someone who prefers to be alone or is perhaps shy, while the term ‘extrovert’ refers to someone who prefers to be social and is more outgoing. It has been suggested, however, that the terms may entail more than these simplistic labels; in addition, introverts restore their energy by being alone and find being around people draining, while extroverts are the opposite.

Some psychologists have suggested that the brains of introverts and extroverts operate differently, including the way they process risks and rewards. It has been found, for example, that people with personality types high in extroversion are more likely to be involved in high-risk sports like skydiving, as well as risky sexual behaviour and teenage smoking.

So where do you fall on the introvert/extrovert scale? If you are like most people, you’ll probably picture yourself somewhere in the middle. If this is the case, then you are most likely an ambivert: a person who has both extroverted and introverted tendencies, and enjoys spending time both alone and with other people, but not for too long at any one time. In other words, you’re more than happy to spend a weekend away with friends, but by Sunday afternoon you could really do with some alone time to recharge. Likewise, you’re content having a period of ‘me time’, but you’ll eventually need social interaction when being alone becomes draining.

You might be wondering what value these terms really have if most people fall somewhere in between. To answer that, it might be helpful to look at the origins of the words. The terms were initially coined by the psychologist Carl Jung as a way of categorising human temperament, but even he admitted that no one is solely one or the other. Knowing which end of the scale a person tends to hover towards, however, can be helpful in knowing how to treat that person. For example, you shouldn’t push an introvert to make more friends, insult their need for privacy or try to make them into extroverts; equally, you should not discourage the enthusiasm and headfirst nature of an extrovert. You should also not assume that introverts are shy just because they prefer spending time alone.

If you’re interested to know where you fall on the scale, you can take the test online, which is based on Jung’s personality types. As you’ll see in your results, introversion and extroversion represent only one element of personality, as within the types there are many other elements that differentiate you from others, thereby emphasising the broad nature of the terms.

Feel free to share your results and thoughts in the comments section!

Words: Abi Prendergast

Image: Liv Tucker

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