How Extroverts Help us Understand our Three Natures

Brian Little

What makes an individual who they are? How do they develop their personality? Cambridge research professor Brian Little focuses on moments when we transcend the traits psychologists study. We do it because our culture demands it, or because we demand it.

Trait psychology looks at people along five dimensions —1./ open vs. closed to experience; 2./ conscientious vs. lackadaisical; 3./ extroverted vs. introverted; 4./ agreeable vs. non-agreeable; 5./ neurotic vs. more stable.

Little says of all these traits extroversion is consequential because it helps us understand what he calls our three natures: 

1. Biogenic —the aspects of our personality sourced genetically. (50%)
2. Sociogenic —those aspects learned from social and cultural factors (25%), and
3. Idojenic —the aspects of our personality best accounted for by (idiosyncratic) individual factors such as personal values, goals, projects and commitments. (25%)

When we study extroverts, we learn about the importance of the external environment. Says Little:

One of the things that characterizes extroverts is they need stimulation. And that stimulation can be achieved by finding things that are exciting: loud noises, parties and social events you see the extroverts forming a magnetic core. They all gather together.

The introverts are more likely to spend time in the quiet spaces, where they are able to reduce stimulation and may be misconstrued as being antisocial, but you're not necessarily antisocial.It may be that you simply realize that you do better when you have a chance to lower that level of stimulation.

Sometimes it's an internal stimulant, from your body. Caffeine, for example, works much better with extroverts than it does introverts. When extroverts come into the office at nine o'clock in the morning and say, "I really need a cup of coffee," they're not kidding they really do.Introverts do not do as well, particularly if the tasks they're engaged in and they've had some coffee if those tasks are speeded, introverts may give the appearance of not being particularly quantitative. But it's a misconstrual.

We communicate differently. In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking Susan Cain found the chain of events that led to the cultural transformation of a whole country from a Culture of Character, the United States moved to a Culture of Personality. The world followed —and now we can't stop talking.

When they engage in conversation extroverts enjoy eye contact and physical proximity, becoming more informal quickly and use concrete and direct language while introverts wait to establish some level of intimacy first and prefer contextually complex language, sometimes filled with weasel words that make it less direct.

But we are not just a collection of traits. Our personalities are also the product of circumstance. We become assertive when we need to solve a particularly pressing problem, for example, when we would normally be the quiet ones.

Which is why to understand where someone is, we should not focus on what people are but ask them about the core projects in their lives. According to Little most of us have up to 15 projects on the go. It is the core project that enacts the free traits that take us off the scripted path and into the mode that helps us advance.

As an example, Little cites himself —he's an introvert, but with a core project to profess, so he became a professor who loves his field and teaching his students. This is the condition that creates the free trait where he acts as an extrovert because he can't wait to share what is new and exciting in his field.

When we act out of character for a prolonged period of time, however, we may neglect taking care of ourselves. Susan Cain gave the example of a Canadian professor who repaired into the bathroom to find some quiet time, which is what an introvert needs after periods of extrovert-like behavior.

Watch the full talk in the video below.


More on acting out of character and finding restorative niches in Brian Little's Me, Myself, and Us: the Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.