Rebirth of Reason


Introverts, Extroverts, and Howard Roark
by Joseph Rowlands

There have been a couple of recent discussions on SOLOHQ about the topic of introverts vs. extroverts.  There seems to be a number of disagreements on the issue, and I think part of that is because the conventional introvert/extrovert scale isn't very informative.  The terms are used to describe wildly different people to the point where it doesn't convey much useful information.

The introvert/extrovert scale is often visualized as a continuum with pure introvert and pure extrovert on the outsides.  As you slide from one side to the other, you become less introverted and more extroverted, or the reverse.  The implication here is that there's some kind of dichotomy here.  It claims to be exhaustive, saying that everyone fits somewhere on the continuum.  It also claims some level of mutual exclusivity, saying to the extent to which one is true, the other is not true.

The introvert/extrovert scale is very similar to the typical Left/Right political spectrum, and suffers from the same flaws.  The "Right" includes religious theocrats, fascists, and libertarians, which means that "Right" doesn't mean much at all.  Left includes environmental wackos, Marxists, and non-ideological anarchists.  The distinctions don't really mean anything and so the spectrum causes more confusion than clarity.

In order to try to make it more meaningful, the left is assumed to be for social freedom and economic controls, while the right is for economic freedom and social controls.  The problem is obvious.  You have two groups that don't fit in to the spectrum.  Those who want freedom in all areas, and those who want controls in all areas.  To put both of these into the "center" along with the undecided people shows how worthless this model is.

The Libertarians have developed their own model (http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz-score/lib-quizadvo-article.html) they're hoping will catch on.  They show that the political spectrum can be better described in two dimensions.  Instead of some nebulous "right" and "left," they have economic freedom as one axis, and personal freedom on the other.  Now statists and libertarians are a mile apart instead of lumped in the center.

The introvert/extrovert question can also be split up this way.  The introvert and extrovert concepts are supposed to deal with motivations and character traits.  That's why shy people are considered to be introverts, while the party animals are considered extroverts.  But there's one person who screws up this whole view of introvert vs. extrovert.  His name is Howard Roark.

Howard Roark doesn't really care about other people very much.  It's not that he dislikes them.  He likes a few.  But he doesn't really care about them that much.  It's impossible to think of him as getting nervous when going to a party, or being intimidated by a hostile audience.  You also can't see him getting worked up and excited about going to a party or being the center of attention.  He just doesn't care enough.

Of course, one could try to lump Howard Roark into either the extrovert or introvert scale.  He does his own thing, and cares mostly for himself, so maybe shove him into the introvert scale.  But does he really have anything in common with people who are shy and intimidated?  How about putting him on the extrovert scale, since he's definitely comfortable around others.  But the clash there is obvious.  How about in the middle?  Do you say he's half introvert and half extrovert?

There are other people who don't quite fit the scale.  What about those who worship other people, but are disliked by them?  When in a comfortable environment, they may be the life of the party.  But away from their friends, they may become deathly afraid.  Introverts or extroverts?  Shove them in the middle too?  Or how about those who are well-liked and always the center of attention when they're out, but like to spend time alone. 

Like the political spectrum, it breaks down.  Either it stays exhaustive, but the two sides become meaningless, or it keeps some meaning, but then doesn't have a place for everyone.  You can shove Howard Roark in with shy people who worship others but just don't know the right things to say, but how useful is the term 'introvert'?  You can shove people who are at ease around others with social metaphysicians, but there are only the most superficial similarities.

Instead, we can change the scale to like the political scale.  Let's add a factor, and see what kind of improvement we can get.  On one axis, we can take whether you even care about the opinions of the people around you or not, and the extent to which you do.  And on the other axis, you can take whether you think they'll like or dislike you.

The scale has some advantages because it allows you to explain the position on the chart with different causes.  For instance, the issue of negative self-esteem could push someone far into the left of the chart.  This isn't to say that the person happens to like books and being alone, only that to the extent that they value the opinions of the people around them, they'll act shy.  Someone with a much healthier self-esteem may sit on the right half of the scale, knowing that they'll be liked because they know their own qualities.

Additionally, it takes into account another factor, which is what you think of the value-judgments of the other people.  If you're with people who hate achievement, your healthy self-esteem might actually make you uncomfortable.  Your expectations will be based on the full context of the situation, knowing what you know about yourself and about the other people.

The extent to which you value the opinion of the other people can also be based on a lot of things.  Roark just doesn't think about people, so he would be low on that scale.  But you might find that you have so little respect for some people, you can't even be bothered getting nervous about them.  Or in the reverse, you might find that certain people are far more important to you.  A guy who's brave among other men is one thing, but brave around beautiful women is another.  But after the same guy has a girlfriend, he may not experience being shy anymore, or at least for the duration.  Because he doesn't consider the women as currently possible romantic partners, he'll care less about what they think of him.

Let's take a look at the scale again, with a few examples.


The typical shy person cares a bit about the people around him, and is simply intimidated by his expectation that they'll have a negative reaction to him.  The Party Animal will be in his element expecting people to like him, and being happy about it.  Both of these are positions are highly contextual, and the same person in a different environment may switch roles entirely.

The bubble on the bottom is Howard Roark.  As is expected, he's at the bottom of the scale when it comes to caring about what other people think of him.  This isn't because he has positive or negative expectations.  He may have both.  He quickly learned that he could never talk to a committee, or certain kinds of people.  It'd be like talking to a brick wall.  He knew the reaction would be bad.  Similarly, he knew at the sight of certain people that he could speak their language.  So he traverses the spectrum from left to right, but stays at the bottom, varying slightly depending on the people involved.

The new model makes sense of a lot more cases that the old model because it doesn't try to over-generalize.  It is very much based on context, and so the results for a particular person can change over time.  Far from being a weakness, this is the strength of the model.  We no longer have to say that someone is in the middle of the introvert/extrovert scale just because a change of context brings out a different side of them.

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