Does Your Culture Make You Feel Bad About Being An Introvert? You Are Not Alone

Psychologists explain that introverts who feel pressured to act in extraverted ways may feel trapped in inauthenticity.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 11, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that introverts feel less authentic when acting in extraverted ways, but feel compelled to do so in cultures that uphold an 'extraversion ideal.'

I recently spoke to psychologists John Zelenski and Isabella Bossom of Carleton University in Canada to understand the distinguishing features between momentary and long-term introversion and extraversion. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is 'the extraversion ideal' and how does it affect individuals?

The 'extraversion ideal' is the preference in many Western cultures for people who embody more extraverted traits.

In Western societies, it is seen as preferable to be more agentic, expressive, sociable, and comfortable receiving attention from others. Susan Cain has described this phenomenon in a very popular TED talk and book, and in a way that particularly resonated with some introverts who experienced the cultural preference negatively.

There is also extensive research that demonstrates that extraverted people are, on average, happier than introverted people.

If you are an extraverted person living in the USA or Canada, the cultural context may provide a good person-environment fit. However, if you are an introverted person living here, the person-environment fit may be lower, which could result in lower well-being and authenticity and pressures to act in more extraverted ways.

It is worth noting that extraversion predicts happiness in cultures with less preference for the trait, but those links are also weaker. So, culture is likely only part of the reason why extraverts are happier.

Your paper states that introverts engage in extroverted activity more than extroverts engage in introverted activity. Please could you further explain this phenomenon?

States refer to how one is feeling, behaving, thinking, etc. in the moment with the idea that only a short time frame is under consideration (e.g., moods are temporary).

Traits are the long-term characteristics of people that are relatively stable (e.g., over years, on average).

One way to understand the link between states and traits is to view traits merely as averages of states over time. This can be applied to both authenticity and introversion-extraversion.

It is possible to debate whether the trait is more than the sum (or average) of its moments, but this perspective comes with a recognition (and data) that suggest that people display a wide range of behaviors over time.

Introverted people act extraverted and vice versa; however, when we take averages of those behaviors over time (e.g., a week or two), we find remarkable stability in these average levels.

This suggests clear personality differences (i.e., the consistent differences in averages), even while we can also observe much moment-to-moment variation.

From this perspective, extraverts are people who behave in extraverted ways more often than introverts. (Also, personality psychologists see introversion-extraversion as a dimension of difference where being more of one necessarily means being less of the other; still, there are many people who fall near the middle of that dimension and therefore not extreme introverts or extraverts.)

What inspired you to investigate the topic of trait introversion-extraversion and state authenticity and what did you find?

We were fascinated by the finding that introverts feel more authentic when behaving in extraverted ways. We wanted to test this effect and determine whether embracing extraversion always made people feel authentic.

We thought that perhaps people have varying levels of strength of identification as an introvert or extravert as part of their identity.

We anticipated that identification strength as an introvert or extravert would be distinct from one's trait levels (i.e., something you feel is important to you vs. something you merely have).

Using an adapted version of an online debate task that was developed in Dr. Zelenski's laboratory, we assessed how debating for or against the benefits of extraversion would influence state authenticity for those strongly (versus weakly) identified with their introverted nature or extraverted nature.

Study participants were Canadian university students who completed the study online.

First, the participants answered a questionnaire about their traits (including extraversion), then they answered a questionnaire about their strength of identification as an introvert or extravert (and a few other, less focal things).

Next, participants completed an online debate task where participants were randomly assigned to either a pro-extraversion or a con-extraversion condition. Their task was to debate the resolution 'it is good to be more extraverted than introverted.'

After providing an argument to support their assigned position, participants were shown four rounds of opposing arguments that they had to rebut to support their position. Then, participants completed a questionnaire on their state authenticity and moods.

In Study 1, we found that people who had strong introvert identities had lower state authenticity when they argued for the benefits of extraversion. We did not find any differences for trait extraversion.

In Study 2, we found again that people with stronger introverted identities reported higher state authenticity when arguing against rather than for the benefits of extraversion. However, we also found that people with higher trait extraversion reported higher state authenticity when arguing for the benefits of extraversion.

What are some of the benefits of an individual having high levels of self-behavior fit?

In our study, we found that arguing in ways that were consistent with trait and identity (e.g., a highly identified introvert arguing against the benefits of extraversion) experienced more authenticity immediately afterward.

It is important to note, however, that people's intuitions about the importance of fitting behavior to traits might exaggerate the reality.

Our study was motivated by a series of studies that find acting extraverted is associated with good moods and feeling authentic for most people, including many introverts.

Although there are a couple of other exceptions, our study is unique in finding the 'fit' pattern, and mainly for authenticity rather than mood here.

We anticipated that measuring identities would be the key feature in finding the fit pattern; however, it is also important to recognize that debating for extraversion is not necessarily the same as behaving in an extraverted way.

Participants did the task while sitting at a computer and typing (seems introverted), but they were asserting an opinion to engage in the debate (seems more extraverted).

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

We did not anticipate that trait extraversion would produce differences, depending on the debate position; instead, we thought that the strength of one's identity would be the key to finding that fit matters.

Across the two studies, the statistical details differed, but overall there was a pretty clear pattern suggesting that fit with both traits and identities seemed important to feeling authentic in the debate task.

We are still keen to learn more about how introvert and extravert identities are potentially important and how they might differ from trait scores (indeed, traits and identities were not strongly correlated), but results raise the question of whether it might be particular situations (the debate here) rather than the identity-trait distinction that is key to fit. More research is needed.