Are extroverts extra happy?

David Kelly

Extroversion is so tightly linked with happiness that scientists have proposed it be renamed ‘Positive Emotion’.

A popular personality test that assesses extroversion is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This assessment was developed by a mother-daughter team based on personality types proposed by the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. It is marketed as being able to capture a person’s unique psychological structure.

The test classifies people into 16 types, across four bipolar dimensions: Extroversion (E) versus Introversion (I), Sensing (S) versus Intuiting (N), Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F), and Perceiving (P) versus Judging (J). One result may be INTJ – Introverted/Intuitive/Thinking/Judgemental.

However, there is very little scientific evidence behind the MBTI. The either/or logic of the test is extremely flawed. People are not either extroverted or introverted. Most people fall someplace in the middle.

The most validated personality taxonomy is The Big Five. This includes the traits Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Neuroticism and Openness-to-Experience. The most fleshed out traits in psychology are Extroversion and Neuroticism and are incredibly enlightening when understood.

Some scientists have proposed that Extroversion be synonymous with ‘Positive Emotion’. Extroverted people tend to report greater levels of happiness than introverts. They are better at mood regulation, as they savour positive moods.

Why is this? As humans evolved in small, social groups in the Evolutionary Environment of Adaption, we have ‘a fundamental need to belong’. As Extroversion concerns sociability, and extroverts are more sensitive to positive experiences in social settings, the trait is heavily linked with positive emotion.

Social scientists performed an experiment to determine Extroversion direct and indirect effect on happiness. While Extroversion has a somewhat significant effect on happiness, it has a greater effect on social competence, which in turn has a great effect on happiness.

However, Extroversion does have its cons. While extroverts tend to respond optimistically to punishment, they also respond impulsively. Psychologist, John Brebner, described extroverts as ‘geared to respond’, while introverts are ‘geared to inspect’.

A sub-trait related to Extroversion is ‘Sensation-Seeking’. Those high in this trait are compelled to seek new and exciting sensations and may take physical and social risks to do so. They are susceptible to boredom and disinhibited, which may lead to mistakes and regrets.

The biological origin of Extroversion is considered to lie within the ‘Behavioural Approach System’ (BAS) of the brain. This system motivates behaviour aimed at goal achievement and obtaining positive, emotional rewards. Extroverts tend to have a more dominant BAS, characterised by approach, whereas introverts’ BAS is characterised by avoidance.

Dopamine, the reward chemical, is fired in response to goal achievement and pleasure. This is why people use cocaine, it fires dopamine. Extroverts are more sensitive to dopamine production, making them outgoing and impulsive. Introverts, however, are less sensitive, therefore they’re less outgoing and importantly, less impulsive.

Douglas Holmes, a psychologist, performed an experiment that somewhat tested this hypothesis. When a person is exposed to a bright light, the pupils automatically contract to ward off the sudden increase of stimulation. Introverts’ pupils contract significantly quicker than extroverts, showing that even at the level of automatic response, introverts exhibit an avoidance tactic.

The BAS is associated with the left side of the brain, while the right side is associated with its counterpart, the ‘Behavioural Inhibition System’ (BIS). This system is tightly related to the personality trait, Neuroticism. This trait is one’s sensitivity to negative emotion; the susceptibility to anxiety and depression.

Whereas the BAS is characterised by sensitivity to reward, the BIS is one’s sensitivity to the threat of punishment. Those with a dominant BIS are more prone to anxiety and higher in Neuroticism, hence, negative emotion.

Being high in Neuroticism is associated with numerous issues, such as poor health, psychological distress, divorce and even life-threatening heart disease. However, neurotics do not necessarily feel less positive emotion, rather they specifically feel higher levels of negative emotion. It is possible to be an extroverted neurotic; a hysteric.

Research has been conducted to determine why neurotics experience more daily distress. Three main sources were found. First, Neuroticism tends to expose people to a great number of stressors, especially interpersonally. Second, neurotics have strong negative emotional reactions to stressors, with their reactivity being twice as important as their exposure.

Finally, 60 per cent of a neurotic’s distress stems from factors unrelated to exposure or reactivity. It appears that those high in Neuroticism just tend to have a general bad feeling that distorts their well-being. Additionally, happiness is partly a consequence of social skills, and Neuroticism impairs social skills.

Neurotics find it difficult to adjust their social behaviour to correspond to their situation and are oblivious to social cues. Scientists theorise that this may be due to a preoccupation with ‘hyperactivity’, a high sensitivity to signals of punishment and negative emotion.

Hyperreactivity is the first process is in what researchers call ‘a negative cascade’. This is a build-up and release of strong negative feelings in daily life. Hyperactivity comes first. Secondly, neurotics tend to experience negative emotion more frequently. Third, they tend to perceive the world negatively. Fourth, the negative emotion associated with one aspect of life spills over into other aspects of life.

Finally, neurotics find it difficult to cope with past problems, which results in unresolved conflicts causing more negative emotion. Inadequate coping strategies are common in neurotic people. When coping with stressful events, neurotics tend to employ ‘avoidant’ or ‘emotion focused’ coping strategies.

These strategies are characteristic of a dominant BIS, and include attempts to soothe fears, calm nerves, escape via drug or alcohol abuse, or simply by just staying in bed. Interestingly, research indicates that while neurotics employ anxiety-inducing strategies during exams season, they do not get worse results than those low in Neuroticism.

However, it’s not all hopeless. Neuroticism can be decreased in individuals. Clinical psychologists and counsellors have been decreasing the trait for years, often by large amounts in only four weeks. You can determine where you are on these traits at ‘understandmyself.com’. Understanding where you fall is the first step to positive changes.

Nobody has a perfect personality, but you can certainly try.

David Kelly

Image Credit: Deidre Kelly