One of the most interesting things about personality to me is the range of expression of different traits. My introverted behavior and preferences are similar to but not identical to those of introverted friends, for example, and the reasons have to do with other personality characteristics as well as different personal histories. So I was interested in this article from Science of Us about an attempt to identify various kinds of introversion.
The research described in that article was motivated by the fact that the term introversion has a somewhat elusive meaning, and the scientific definition doesn’t exactly line up with some of the ways that non-scientists tend to think of introverts. Jonathan Cheek at Wellesley College has been working on a finer-grained understanding of different kinds of introversion. He and two grad students recently reported a method of identifying four variants: social, thinking, anxious, and restrained. Social introverts simply prefer to hang out in smaller groups or spend time alone. The other three types are more motivated by something in themselves: strong enjoyment of an inner mental world, extreme self-consciousness around others, or a need for time to process things before reacting.
The article above includes a test you can take to see where you fall in this scheme of things. I scored exactly the same on each type: no surprise, because I recognized myself in the description of each one. And these facets of introversion seem deeply intertwined to me. It’s easy to feel self-conscious around others if you see that your inner mental world, or the strength of your immersion in it, seem weird to those around you. If your thoughts and solitary work absorb a lot of your energy, you might need time to shift your attention from the familiar confines of your own mind to the demands of the outside world.
A friend whose introversion sometimes seems to manifest itself most differently from mine had pretty much the same scores as I did, so this particular measure didn’t do much to illuminate the differences in our behavior or preferences. We agreed that some of the questions were also difficult to answer, which is not surprising for this type of test.
You’re asked, for example, how typical of you it is to want to vacation in places with a lot of people, or how much you want to get away when you’ve been surrounded by people. Sometimes I like having lots of people around who are going about their own business; I enjoy reading or writing in a coffee shop where strangers come and go, for example, which gives me a sort of bubble of solitude all the more pleasurable for lying among the hubbub of other lives. I’d probably be more eager to escape to a private space if I were vacationing in a small town where everyone knew everyone else than if I were someplace like Paris or Manhattan, where you have the energy and interest of other lives around you but you don’t need to interact directly with anyone most of the time except in the most predictable of social rituals.
In fact, I’d say that my preference for the number of people around is U-shaped: a high preference for solitude or very small groups, moderate enjoyment of anonymous benign crowds, and deep discomfort with, say, a room full of 10 or 20 strangers that I’m expected to socialize with. But you’re not likely to learn that about me unless you know me or I tell you in so many words; it’s hard to imagine a test that would reveal all the nuances.
Years ago I read a book that reviewed various theories of personality, and in the end the author concluded that personality may be a mystery, in the sense that you understand it not so much by analysis as by experience. The older I get, the more this rings true. I’m still interested in analysis like the work Cheek does, but mostly as another filter for examining experience.