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Exactly How to Tell the Difference Between an Introvert and Extrovert

Prevention logo Prevention 10/22/2018 Brielle Gregory

© Holly Harris/Getty Images Most of us think being introverted or extroverted is as simple as falling into one of two boxes: Would you rather stay at home on a Friday night in your pajamas or go out to the bars with a big group of friends? Would you rather be the center of attention or stay as far away from the spotlight as you can?

But the truth is, your personality is not that black and white. “There are no pure types in psychology,” says Dan McAdams, PhD, chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University. “Extroversion/introversion is a continuous dimension, like height and weight. There are people who score at the extremes, like very heavy people, or very tall people, or people who score very high on the trait of extroversion-but most people fall in the middle of these bell-shaped curves.”

Regardless of where we sit on the spectrum, there’s no doubt that personality plays a huge role in our everyday lives. “Everything that people do is a reflection of their personality,” says Michael Robinson, PhD, professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “Personality is always with us, influencing what we think about, what we feel, and how we behave.”

Our personalities are made up of what psychologists call “The Big 5” personality traits, which have the acronym OCEAN: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, says Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

So even though extroversion is only one part of our personalities, it’s still a big part of how we think and act. And just how extroverted or introverted we are can influence everything from our social views, to our relationships, to our careers. Here’s what to know about the two polar ends of the continuum and determining where you fall.

Video: Are you an introvert or extrovert? This exercise will help you find out (CNBC)

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What is an introvert?

Being more of an introverted person means you thrive on spending time with your own thoughts and ideas.

Common introvert traits

  • Enjoy spending time in solitude
  • Don’t prefer to be the center of attention
  • Value close one-on-one relationships
  • Think before they speak/not as talkative
  • Need time alone to recharge and reflect
  • Prefer working in quiet, independent environments
  • Deeply focus and think about specific interests
  • Can be seen as reserved

“One thing I think people get confused is the difference between introversion and shyness,” says Robin Edelstein, PhD, chair of the Personality and Social Contexts Psychology Program at the University of Michigan. “Shyness has anxiety, or a negative component, to it.” Pure introversion, on the other hand, doesn’t have that negative aspect to it. “They’re happy to be alone, not needing as much social contact, but not having this anxiety about, ‘Will other people like me? Will I be accepted?’ That’s more shyness than introversion,” says Edelstein.

Another important thing to remember about introverts is that just because they might prefer to be around fewer people, that doesn’t mean they don’t still have quality friendships and relationships, says Robinson. “Once a friendship is established, introverts and extroverts do not differ in the quality of the friendships that they have,” he says.

Although our society tends to be more geared toward extroverts-think leadership roles, building connections, and so on-the seemingly bad image introverts sometimes get doesn’t really hold water. “A lot of people have argued that we value extroversion so much in Western culture that introverts get a bad rap,” says Edelstein. “But there’s nothing problematic about being an introvert.”

In fact, on top of still having great relationships, introverts can also be extremely successful in their careers. The only difference is, they tend to gravitate more toward roles that have an element of solitude, such as accounting, engineering, writing, or long-haul truck driving.

What is an extrovert?

Being more of an extroverted person means you thrive on the energy of the people and things around you.

Common extrovert traits

  • Have large social networks
  • Enjoy being the center of attention
  • Tend to think out loud
  • Make quick decisions
  • Gain energy from being around other people
  • Outgoing, enthusiastic, and positive
  • Thrive in team-oriented and open work settings

“Extroverts are also more likely to be the center of a social network,” says Ryne Sherman, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Texas Tech University. “They’re more likely to be the person who knows lots of people.”

Although there’s no research showing the differences between how introverts and extroverts react to and accept change, since extroverts tend to have larger social circles, that could make a difference in how deeply big life events might impact them. “They can draw on more people to provide comfort, to provide social support,” says Sherman. “So when a major event happens, they have more support than introverts typically do.”

Plus, our society tends to be more geared toward the acceptance of extroverts. “I think you can make a case that they’re better suited to our world in a lot of ways,” says Edelstein. “Our world is sort of set up and more geared toward extroverts and making connections, going on job interviews, and going on dates. All these things make that easier.”

This is part of the reason extroverts can more often be found in leadership roles, or in people-centric careers like sales, marketing, or public relations.

But it’s important to keep in mind that extroversion is still just one component of a person’s personality. “I think a big piece of thinking about introversion and extroversion in combination with other traits is it’s going to have a different flavor,” says Edelstein. For example, there’s a big difference between an extrovert who’s agreeable versus one who’s loud and makes rude comments.

So, how do you find out if you’re an introvert or an extrovert?

Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. That’s a good thing, especially as our society has become more and more obsessed with dividing us out into “types.”

“Certain very popular 'measures' of personality (most notoriously the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI) purport to put people into types,” says McAdams. “There are no types, and these measures have no scientific validity. What we can say is that people do show differences with respect to where they are placed on the continuum.”

To find out where you sit on that continuum, Sherman recommends taking the SAPA Project’s personality test, which will tell you whether you’re high or low on extroversion. Being aware of your personality can definitely prove beneficial. “It provides some sense of consistency, predictability, and reliability of our expression of ourselves across time,” says Bea.

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