Why Introvert and Extrovert are Meaningless Words

Not only is classifying your personality with stark opposites inaccurate, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By Andrew Mikula, Bates College

If you’re like me, you probably take at least 20 online quizzes every week.

There’s just something about the concept of a quiz that makes you feel infinitely more productive than other ways of wasting time.

There are tons of “online quiz archetypes” out there. Everyone wants to know which “Game of Thrones” character is most like them, and which state or city they “should” live in, and whether or not Jim Parsons and Neil Patrick Harris were born in the same year. (Turns out they are. Isn’t that crazy?)

But if there’s one kind of online quiz I like to avoid, it’s personality quizzes. Even if it might not be totally accurate to say that I’m most like Eddard Stark because we both have badass facial hair, quizzes that try to help people determine whether they’re “extroverted” or “introverted” are definitely misleading.

I’d like to think that most people don’t even remotely believe that they should move to California just because an online quiz says they should, but unlike deciding where you want to live, however, expressing your personality is an ongoing endeavor, and letting a 10-question, multiple choice quiz decide how you’ll express yourself can have both immediate and lasting consequences.

I remember taking a personality test in high school that classified me as “introverted.” Probably not a big deal, right? But then I found myself slowly beginning to conform to a notion of myself that I had gained from a 5-minute quiz I had initially clicked on by accident.

And it’s not just online quizzes, either. One of my high school teachers classified sides of the room based on class participation: There was the “quiet side” and the “talkative side.” I was on the “quiet side,” a categorization that seemed to further reinforce this notion of introversion I had developed out of the blue.

Because you know what introversion is, right? It’s when you think it’s rude to talk to other people unless you’re spoken to. It’s when you wear clothes that deliberately match the wallpaper so you can blend in easier. To be an introvert, there’s a minimum cat-hoarding allocation of 15.

But all of that is bullshit.

Introversion and extroversion are relative, and they certainly aren’t defined by how many cats you have. I started realizing the fallacy of my categorization when, a whole year after the “quiet side” incident, my psychology teacher had his students fill out personality tests for other people in my class. The friend who filled out the test for me ranked me almost as extroverted as the test allowed.

The relativity of intro and extroversion is also relevant on a daily basis. I tend to act more introverted around people I view as extroverted and vice versa, which is either completely normal or a major sign of some obscure anti-social disease.

Either way, I eventually came to accept that I am neither an introvert nor an extrovert. To put it another way, which trait I express depends on where I am, who I’m with, when and how I’m assessing myself and a host of other factors. And that’s only one of the reasons why, after you take that personality quiz again, you’ll get a completely different result. The other reason is that your quiz results aren’t exactly backed up by extensive scientific research.

Still, it’s kind of confusing to think about how your personality bends and stretches in different circumstances. It helps to see personality as a spectrum instead of as a series of characteristics that can be boiled down to two opposite extremes.

If I was talking about kindness, the “opposite extremes” situation would make no sense: You can’t pigeonhole all of humanity into either “nice” or “mean.” Instead, whether someone is nice or mean to you depends on how much sleep they got the previous night, whether there was pizza available for lunch (Bates College pizza > your college’s pizza), and whether they broke up with their boyfriend/girlfriend, failed 3 tests and lost their laundry card all in the same day. For some reason, people don’t tend to view more obscure or confusing terms like “extroversion” and “introversion” in the same way.

Clearly, the introvert or extrovert duality is a massive oversimplification, that in addition to being inaccurate can also be harmful. Seeing people as one thing or the other just enforces humanity’s bad habit of categorizing and marginalizing others—it’s kind of the whole basis for racism, discrimination and prejudice.

And even if you don’t care about how intro or extroverted you are, this spectral way of thinking about how you define yourself applies to a grocery list full of other characteristics, even gender and sexual orientation. Identifying yourself as “male” or “female,” “gay” or “straight” is just convenient in most cases. Though this Manichean classification system isn’t ideal, it’s a lot more practical than saying you’re 72 percent extrovert, 28 percent introvert. Words are hard, man, but so are numbers.

Moreover, the only person who really gets to decide the labels you want to associate yourself with and the labels you don’t is you.

Not your parents. Not your friends. Not Buzzfeed.

And there were warning signs from the beginning, too. For example, when a quiz asked you “Coffee or tea?” and you said “Can’t I stick to water?” But it’s easy to forget how much labels weigh people down because they’re everywhere, from politics (“Democrat” or “Republican”) to sleep patterns (“early bird” or “night owl”).

And I think it’s especially important that teenagers and college students understand the inaccuracy of labels, because there’s always a lot of pressure for you to figure out who you are at that age. Adolescence is supposed to be the time when you “find yourself,” whatever that means. But the feeling of not being sure of who you are—introvert or extrovert, California or New York, Coke or Pepsi—isn’t going to go away.

Instead, it’s constantly changing. You’re constantly changing. And what’s the point of having words like “introvert” and “extrovert” when everyone is in an eternal cycle of flip-flopping between one and the other?

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