Whatever brand of personality test you take, the chances are you will be described as being one of two types - Extravert or Introvert. Broadly, we think of Extraverts as people who gain energy from others, whereas Introverts recharge by spending time alone. If you never refuse an invitation to the party, you're an Extravert. If you'd rather stay home and read a book, then you're probably an Introvert - or so the theory goes.

These are extreme examples. In reality, many of us display both Extravert and Introvert tendencies, depending on the situation we find ourselves in. To be sure, some people fall squarely in the Introverted or Extraverted camp and will feel comfortable using these labels. But it is more helpful to think of Introversion/Extraversion as a spectrum. Most of us cluster in the middle of the spectrum rather than at one of the polar extremes, even if our type preference is clear.

What about the people who lie smack dab in the middle of the spectrum? Carl Jung himself argued, "there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extravert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum." Rather, Jung identified a "third group, and here it is hard to say whether the motivation comes chiefly from within or without." We've come to recognize the third group as Ambiverts. According to Jung, they make up the majority of the population.

What is an ambivert anyway?

Personality theories such as that created by Briggs and Myers work on the assumption that we all gravitate towards Introversion or Extraversion, but can learn to adapt and use skills from the other type. Someone who tests in the middle of the scale is an Ambivert. But so is the person who can comfortably bounce between the two extremes.

Consider the meaning of Introversion and Extraversion. This scale measures where we get our energy from - whether we recharge our mental batteries alone (Introversion) or in the company of others (Extraversion).

Back in the 1960s, psychologist Hans Eysenck proposed the "arousal theory" of Introversion/Extraversion. Instead of framing the spectrum in terms of energy, he described it in terms of arousal, or how responsive our minds are to stimulation. According to Eysenck, Extraverts have low internal arousal, and thus seek out stimulating environments and people. In the absence of external stimulation, Extraverts may feel bored and agitated. Introverts, by contrast, have high arousal and can easily become overstimulated by noise, activity and crowds. Excess arousal stresses the Introvert, who must seek out a quieter environment to lower the stimulation.

Ambiverts are right in the middle when it comes to stimulation, either because they sit in the optimum center of the scale, or because they oscillate between Extraverted and Introverted behaviors that level out over time. As a result, the Ambivert is comfortable with multiple degrees of stimulation. They enjoy their own company, but don't need solitude to refuel their tank as the Introvert would. They seek out social situations, but perhaps don't venture forth with confidence as the Extravert might do. They work well alone; they work well in groups. Significantly, they need both settings equally to be truly happy.

The ambivert advantage

Which personality type makes the best salespeople? Common wisdom suggests that it's the charismatic, fast-talking Extravert. But recent research by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Management suggests that Ambiverts are in fact the sales superstars, earning significantly higher average revenues than the strong Extravert or Introvert.

Ambiverts achieve greater sales productivity because they're socially bilingual. They know exactly when to be assertive and push for the sale, but at the same time, they are capable of shutting up and listening to customers without appearing pushy. In fact, Ambiverts are the only personality type that can toggle back and forth between the strengths of Introversion and Extraversion without paying the price of restlessness or burnout. They can be the good cop and the bad cop, the yin and the yang, at the same time.

The Ambivert advantage can be summed up in one word: balance. Ambiverts offer the approachability and charisma of an Extravert, but they are also capable of deep focus and self-reflection - traits that are commonly associated with Introverts. It's fair to assume that this sense of balance would translate into success in other areas besides sales.

Curious if you're an ambivert?

Ambiverts often struggle with self-assessment personality tests, especially those that ask participants to express how much they identify with a statement ("You prefer not to initiate conversations," "you are usually motivated and energetic"). Since an Ambivert's behavior is likely to change with the situation, it can be very hard for them to know what their default mode actually is.

But if you recognize yourself in the following descriptions, there's a fair chance that you may be an Ambivert.

  • You aren't afraid to talk, but you intuitively know when to stay quiet and observe.
  • You enjoy networking events, but are more confident when you take a friend or colleague along with you.
  • You are emotionally stable without being overly sensitive or overbearing.
  • You are good at connecting people with others.
  • You avoid confrontation and don't tend to assert yourself unless you have to; then, you prepare well and get your point across effectively.
  • Your professional persona may be different from how your friends see you outside of work.
  • You want others to pay attention to you, but you have no interest in "proving" yourself to a crowd of strangers.
  • You enjoy social gatherings, but would rather be alone than settle for second-rate company.
  • You can take charge of a situation if needed or step down and let someone else lead.
  • You change your approach to fit the situation.

Final thoughts

For anyone who has ever answered "it depends" to a personality quiz, the possibility of a third option makes sense. The most shameless attention hog has her insecurities, and the quiet one at work can be the life of the party.

The fact is, we inhabit a complex world. The majority of our behavior is driven by the situations we find ourselves in and our level of comfort within those situations. Ambiverts are living proof that nothing is fixed, and that most of us are behaviorally fluid to some degree. It's time to celebrate those contradictions and break down the myth that our personalities have to be either/or.

Molly Owens
Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly. Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.