We love to proudly label ourselves as introverts or extraverts. If the Internet has anything to say about it, introverts particularly enjoy categorizing themselves as such and connecting with fellow introverts (virtually, not in person of course) over their mutual distaste for parties and small talk.
But in reality, few of us fit neatly into either of these personality types. And for those of us who are truly in the middle of the introversion/extraversion spectrum, there’s a name, too. Psychologists refer to such people as ambiverts, meaning that we express qualities and behaviors of both introverts and extraverts, depending on the situation.
To be sure, some people do fall squarely into either the introvert or the extravert camp. But roughly 38 percent may be somewhere in between, personality psychologist Robert R. McCrae told The Huffington Post.
On scales of personality, you can become an ambivert through two routes: You can answer in the middle of the scale on all the items — for instance, you feel neutral about social situations and crowds, and you’re also lukewarm in your enjoyment of staying in and being alone. Or, you can be an ambivert because you oscillate between the two extremes — sometimes you’re the life of the party, and other times you want nothing but solitude.
To some extent, the classification is arbitrary. Judging degrees of extraversion is like judging how tall or short a person is. Any judgment of a person’s height depends on how we define short and tall, just as judging one’s level of extraversion depends on how we define introvert, extravert, and ambivert.
Still, those who are able to draw from the strengths of both personality types — the capacity for solitude, focus and quiet self-reflection of an introvert, and the outgoing, friendly and approachable nature of of an extravert — may have the advantage.
“Ambiverts can take the best of both,” personality psychologist Brian Little, author of Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, told The Huffington Post. “Those who are ambiverts have rather more degrees of freedom to shape their lives than those who are at extremes of other ends.”
Here’s what you should know about ambiverts and the introversion/extraversion spectrum.
Your level of extraversion is all about how easily stimulated you are.
Being an introvert or extravert isn’t just a question of how friendly or social you are. According to the “arousal model,” it’s more a matter of how stimulated you are, particularly in the neuron-dense neocortex of the brain, which acts as the center for higher mental functions such as spatial reasoning, conscious thought, language and sensory perception. At too high a level of arousal, we might feel frazzled, stressed-out and overwhelmed, and at too low a level, we might find ourselves feeling bored and restless.
There’s an optimal level of neocortical arousal, Little explains. While extraverts are below the level of ideal arousal, and therefore need to seek out exciting, stimulating situations, introverts are chronically above the optimal level of arousal (meaning that they have a lower threshold for stimulation). As a result, introverts try to lower their level of arousal by seeking out quieter environments and activities, which has a lot to do with why they are often misconstrued as being antisocial.
Ambiverts, by definition, are right in between the two when it comes to arousal — either because they go back and forth between being over and under the optimal level of arousal, or because they’re usually in the middle at a comfortable level of arousal — so they’re generally comfortable with a balance of both calmer and more stimulating experiences.
Ambiverts are able to harness the fluid nature of personality.
The 19th century American psychologist William James once said that by the age of 30, the personality is “set like plaster.” Some research has supported this claim, and the idea of introversion and extraversion as categories of personality implies that we have relatively fixed traits. But Little argues that our personalities may be much more fluid than we think.
“I think [James] only got it 50 percent right,” said Little. “I think we as humans are essentially half plastered. One of the ways in which we have greater tractability and capacity to shift is through engaging in what I call ‘free traits’ — an introverted person can act extraverted, and they can do this for some period of time, but not for a protracted period.”
To some extent, introverts can behave as extraverts, and vice versa. But if an introvert pushes themselves to act like an extravert for too long — going out and socializing every night, or putting themselves in too many high-stimulation situations — they’re likely to burn out.
An ambivert, on the other hand, consistently moves between the two orientations, and is more able to take advantage of the fluid nature. Having a flexible personality allows the ambivert to better adapt to different situations, and to make the most of various personal characteristics.
“Ambiverts are in that nice zone, in that sweet spot, where they’re able to act out of character as a pseudo-introvert or a pseudo-extravert, without paying the nervous system costs,” said Little.
They have an advantage in certain types of performance.
Psychologist Dan Pink coined the term “ambivert advantage” to describe the ambivert’s superior ability to draw on the strengths of both introverts and extraverts.
In the domain of sales specifically, ambiverts excel — contrary to the stereotype of the charismatic, ultra-extraverted salesperson. Research conducted by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Adam Grant, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that ambiverts are more effective than introverts and extraverts at closing sales. Grant studied the staff of a software company and assessed where each person stood on a 1-7 scale of introversion to extraversion. He found that neither the strong introverts (those who scored 1 or 2) nor the strong extraverts (scores of 6-7) were the most effective salespeople. Instead, the ambiverts were by far the most effective in selling the software.
Grant hypothesized that although successful salespeople do require some degree of assertiveness, strong extraverts may sometimes be too assertive and enthusiastic to close the sale. Ambiverts, on the other hand, may strike a better balance between assertiveness and approachability.
“My research indicates that organizations stand to benefit from training highly extraverted salespeople to model some of the quiet, reserved tendencies of their more introverted peers,” Grant concluded.
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