What we still get wrong about introverts

Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University recently announced the findings of a linguistic study: extraverts use certain words more frequently than introverts.


But the study raises more questions than it appears to answer. And most troubling of all, it shows that, despite research and mainstream bestselling books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, many negative stereotypes about introverts haven’t gone away.


The university’s website vaguely explains that the study is in fact a meta-analysis of 37 previous studies, using “internationally recognised personality type questionnaires”. There are no links to or information regarding the sources of these tests, and no basic information like what language the tests were conducted in and the profile of participants.


If the tests weren’t conducted in participants’ native language(s), for instance, certain word choices may not be totally accurate. This is why surveys in pharma testing, for example, are always translated and, ideally, localized for participants.


The study’s results show that participants who were (self-described?) extraverts tended to use “positive emotion words” like “beautiful,” “nice” and “love”, and “social process words” like “meet,” “share,” and “talk” more often than the (self-described?) introverts.


Associate Professor Lin Qiu admits that the extraverts only used these words at a slightly higher rate than the introverts; for his team, the results only suggest that marketing algorithms could be developed to determine if someone is an introvert or an extravert, based on their vocabulary.


As an introvert, the idea that there’s only a very small correlation between extraverts, introverts, and vocabulary choices doesn’t surprise me at all.


The study’s creators seem to assume that extraverts are not only more outgoing, but also happier people. While the very nature of extraversion involves taking pleasure in social interaction, introverts aren’t inherently miserable, shy shut-ins; we just need to recharge our batteries after social interactions, with a little quiet or alone time. And while there may be a higher rate of depression among introverts, there are also plenty of people who find happiness and fulfilment in calm activities and smaller social circles.


As mental health service provider Peter Shalek puts it, “If an individual feels engaged and enjoys the time alone, it’s more likely introversion than depression.”


As far as creating an algorithm goes, there isn’t much research related to marketing to introverts versus extraverts, but the few sources available indicate that introverts are more thoughtful about their purchases and less likely to be swayed by trends or popularity.


And yet, I’m sure we’ve all met at least a few extraverts who drive a hard bargain, research major purchases, and aren’t impulse buyers. You also probably know introverts who do impulse buy or like trendy things.


Let's also not forget that there can be a practical side to vocabulary choices. Words like “meet” or “talk” may have less to do with introversion or extraversion than a person’s lifestyle and responsibilities. If you work in a particular field, have a child in school (or attend school yourself), an organization you’re involved in, etc., you will have to meet up with people and even socialize from time to time, regardless of how much or little energy you get from socializing.


Categorizing individuals isn’t just a potential marketing fail; much more importantly, it can affect how we view them, the medical treatments they receive (including unnecessary antidepressants), the opportunities they’re offered and the ones they accept. It can impact how people see themselves, and thus limit themselves.


“Introversion” does not mean being sad or antisocial. People - and the lives they lead – are more complex than a single word.




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