Recent research on extraversion and what it really means to be an Extravert has us questioning our notions of what the “People People” are really all about.
Most of us think of Extraverts as people who are noticeably friendly, outgoing and chatty. When psychologists talk about extraversion in the context of the Big Five model of personality, they're referring to a collection of traits encompassing sociability, processing externally (i.e. thinking out loud) and talkativeness.
We recognize Extraverts as the ones who love parties, who share their thoughts freely and who get energized in the presence of others. And although it's not as widely known, it's also been found that happiness is a key component of extraversion: on average, Extraverts are happier than their Introvert counterparts. Why is this? Is there something about the Extravert approach that brings them more happiness? Or is being happy simply a fundamental part of being an Extravert?
The Reward Factor
Research has shown that people with high extraversion are more attuned and sensitive to rewards than Introverts, and intentionally seek them out more. In this context, reward refers to a positive situation or something that achieves some sort of rewarding outcome. It could be something like working for a financial reward, learning, accomplishing a goal, exercising or creating art, to name a few.
Extraverts are unique in that they tend to condition to these reward triggers more rapidly and intensely than introverts. From a personal perspective, this means that if I discover something that brings some rewarding outcome, I’ll recognize it and latch onto it quickly. The association between that activity and reward will be placed in my memory automatically, such that I will be quite motivated to pursue it again (and again and again and again).
With its traditional definition, extraversion looks pretty good and is generally a socially desirable quality. We’re happy, we’re sociable, we feel good about doing rewarding things and so we do a lot more of those things. Perfect, right?
Do People = Reward?
This reward sensitivity trait is so central to extraversion that it has led researchers to further question what constitutes the core essence of this personality dimension. So, what does sociability have to do with it? A recent study conducted by Benjamin M. Wilkowski and Elizabeth Louise Ferguson from the University of Wyoming raised this interesting question:
“If reward sensitivity is a core feature of extraversion, then why does sociability remain so central to this construct?”1
Is it because social interactions and situations are rewarding? Maybe extraverts aren’t such people lovers after all, but really keen reward seekers who identify people with reward. It kind of puts a different spin on things.
As an Extravert, I’ll admit I found this study initially troubling. As much as I enjoy doing things that are rewarding and spending time with people, I had never considered that there might be a direct connection between the two. It sounded a little mercenary. Was I using people for personal satisfaction and reward without even realizing it? And if so, is there something wrong with that?
I thought about the feeling I get when I’m making plans or on my way to a party or dinner with friends. I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m looking forward to a pleasant interlude, I’m ready to be energized, I’m hoping for stimulating conversation. I make a point to initiate these activities, and when I’m invited by others, I’m quick to RSVP with a yes. These activities and interactions give me an emotional boost, make me feel happy and increase my sense of personal wellbeing. But I rarely think (consciously) about what I’m going to get out of it. It just feels natural to me.
Is this abnormal or somehow wrong? Probably not, because we do it all the time. And though there is a reward for me, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a mutual giving and enjoying. Unless you’re forcing someone to spend time with you (which really cuts the pleasure factor), social activity is a two-way street in which both parties tend to benefit. For extraverts, social activities are what we consider a “positive situation.” So we make sure our lives have lots of them because extraverts are also committed to the maximum quantity of positive situations we can possibly handle.
How Does This Apply to Introverts?
Introversion should not be associated with a dislike of people or an aversion to social situations. According to the same study,
“… Introverts may find social situations as enjoyable as extraverts. Nonetheless, they possess a less active wanting system and fail to implicitly associate social situations with reward. Perhaps as a result, introverts fail to seek out rewarding social situations in the future.”2
Introverts’ natural tendency may be to seek solitude, but many of them also realize that perpetual isolation, though perhaps tempting at times, isn’t really the best or happiest thing. And so, understanding the importance of what other people bring to the table, they pick up the phone and make plans. They are, however, slower to associate people and social situations with reward. They may discover it to be true that social situations and interactions with people are rewarding, but it isn’t a natural mental leap that low extraversion types tend to make.
While this research has helped to redefine the core of extraversion and pose new ways of thinking about this dimension of personality, questions still remain. More research is needed to tell us definitively what it really means to be extraverted, and what is at the core of this personality trait. What do you think? Is extraversion about being sociable? Is it about actively pursuing rewards? Or is it just about being a naturally happier person?
Wilkowski, B. M., & Ferguson, E. L. (2014). Just loving these people: Extraverts implicitly associate people with reward. Journal of Research in Personality, 53, 93-102.
1,2 Wilkowski, B.M., & Ferguson, E.L. (2014).