Introverts. Is it just us, or are they suddenly everywhere?
While once it was enviable to be considered the life of the party, a quick browse of the internet now unearths countless quizzes, videos, memes and articles all thrusting introversion into the spotlight and hailing it as the new norm. Or, perhaps more accurately, the new desirable personality trait.
It's a movement that has been dubbed 'the quiet revolution' (thanks to author Susan Cain and her best-selling novel) and hinges on the premise that society dramatically underestimates introverts, and consequently suffers from doing so.
This premise is by no means a bad thing. As The University of Melbourne's Dr Luke Smillie told HuffPost Australia, "Cain's cause is entirely admirable, to the extent that it objects to cultural pressures to confirm to some idealised personality type".
However it's also not without it's issues. Namely, that what Cain defines as an introvert (which has subsequently become the definition embraced in popular culture) is somewhat at odds with the psychological definition.
In other words, there's a lot of confusion surrounding what introversion actually is.
"I think there has been a misconceptual blending on the different types of introversion," Smillie, a personality psychologist, told HuffPost Australia.
"A lot of people equate introversion with being about ideas and having a rich internal life. They think an introvert is someone who is turned inward and enjoys reading and other more creative pursuits.
"But this is actually veering towards a different trait, and that's openness to experience.
"I think that could account for a lot of interest that's generated around [introversion]," Smillie continued.
"Whereas I think a lot of people who self-identify as introverts are people who are actually more open to experience."
Is that to say introversion is misunderstood in popular culture? Is "openness to experience" just not as catchy?
"It's been popularly defined this way for so long," Smillie said. "It's so ingrained. Maybe openness to experience isn't as catchy is because people haven't heard of it before."
What is an introvert?
As outlined above, extroversion is one of the "Big Five'"personality traits and is associated with boldness, talkativeness and being outgoing.
The 'Big Five' model of personality traits
- Conscientiousness: industriousness, orderliness, dependability,
- Agreeableness: politeness, compassion, kindness
- Neuroticism: anxiety, moodiness, irritability
- Openness to experience: curiosity, imaginativeness, insightfulness, and
- Extroversion: boldness, talkativeness, outgoingness.
Source: The Conversation
And in surely what has to be one of the biggest disappointments to internet memes since Ermahgerd girl, Smillie said introversion isn't a sign of enhanced creativity or enriched inner life... it's merely what extroversion isn't.
"The psychological definition of an introvert is not massively interesting," Smillie said. "It's just being less extroverted.
"It's conceptualised as one dimension, as going very low on the extroversion scale."
But this is very different to how introversion is perceived (and marketed) in general culture today.
"The popular definition is so broad and most of the characteristics are positive," Smillie said. "It's about being intellectual and being sensitive and very perceptive, while the extrovert is caricatured as a buffoon, someone who is blabbing about and not listening to others.
"While the introvert is [meant to be] quietly thinking about things, and more slow and thoughtful and contemplative. Maybe they are also more effective at doing that they are doing... this is what the popular conception of introversion means. And that is very socially desirable."
The quiet revolution
Smillie was quick to point out that while the popular conception of introversion doesn't match up with the psychological definition, that's not to take away from any of the power of Cain's "quiet revolution".
Because while you might not be an introvert in its true sense, it certainly doesn't mean you're an extrovert, either.
In fact he believes one of the reasons introversion has grown in popularity is due to the fact so many people don't identify with the qualities associated with extroversion.
"Susan Cain wrote 'Quiet', and the interest and driving motivation in that book is this idea that in Western society -- and probably especially in American society -- there is this cultural ideal of being very bold and being able to talk to people and very outgoing," Smillie said.
Susan Cain's TED talk on introversion.
"We want students to work together in groups and work to collaborate, we ourselves work in open plan offices and all of this -- anything involving more sociable, more outgoing behaviour -- seems to be valued.
"Her book was to provide a counterweight to that, to say not everyone likes working in this way, not everyone is disposed to being involved and talkative. Some people would perhaps prefer to work on their own.
"This stance appeals to the slightly marginalised, but very large section of the population who aren't as enthusiastic about the cultural norm of being more extroverted.
"When you describe introversion in this way, it's a very appealing thing for people to want to self-identify with. It's a positive thing and it's broad. It's not hard to find an inroad with at least part of that construct.
"And none of that's to say that it's not a meaningful identity. There just might be lots and lots of people who fit that pretty well, who aren't extroverted, who are curious and a couple of other things, and who look at the [popular definition of introversion] and think, 'Oh my God that's me'."
Why is everyone an introvert? A conclusion
In Smillie's opinion, the popularity of introversion boils down to two main things.
Firstly, that a large slice of society fails to identify as an extrovert, and were looking for a label of their own. Cue Susan Cain's book and subsequent media appearances, and the idea of the intellectual, sensitive, creative "introvert" is borne and embraced.
In reality, however, Smillie argues the introvert umbrella everyone is huddling under is too broad and is in fact a mishmash of other (desirable) traits.
"The popular conception of introversion is basically a cluster of groupings of lots of aspects of personalities, whereas the only things they have in common is not high levels of extroversion," he said.
"It's more of a celebration of everything that is not extroversion and calling that introversion.
"To be honest, I was puzzled by it at first, but it makes sense when you realise what the popular conception of introversion means. And that is very socially desirable."
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