Are extroverts more creative?

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Creative introversion

When creativity meets extroversion, it often spills out on the surroundings. This makes it easy to believe that extroverts are more creative. When one of my most creative colleagues claimed to be an introvert, I was a bit puzzled. The stream of his ideas is always rich and prolific. We mostly communicate via e-mail, so I might be mis-interpreting his internal world. I wanted to know more. He read Susan Cain's "Quiet" and recommended that I listen to her TED talk. He found Susan's lecture very convincing. However, the TED talk kept me confused. I have always scored close to the maximum on the extroversion scale but when Susan kept talking about introverts, I often could recognize myself in her words. This sounded like a mix of different psychological characteristics and even traits. My Big Five and Eysenck set me as an extreme extrovert. I went on to Cain's website to take a test and, lo and behold, it appears I am an introvert. I could instantly see a series of problems with Cain's questionnaire, but this also prompted a further investigation. If I try to distill what the actual trait of extroversion is, I find it very difficult. Whatever characteristic of an extrovert I analyze, I see how it strongly overlaps with other personality characteristics, and how it is affected by knowledge, environment, context, nurture, and even the circadian cycle.

Imprecision in psychology

Psychology has a great problem. It carries a big luggage detached from the strict science of genetics. It has been defined by great personalities, like Carl Jung. Many characteristics and definitions overlap and are hard to separate. The adjectives used in psychology are subject to generalizations and interpretations. All great minds have good models. The problem is that those models often differ. Cain had spent 7 years investigating the topic, so I have no doubt that her models are strong and consistent (see: What's the value of wrong models?). However, Cain's models differ from mine, and differ from "the gold standard".

Which characteristic defines extroversion?

Are extroverts just more open to spill out their interior to others? There are always people to who we are ready to tell our secrets, and those we never could or would. This is then strongly context dependent. Even the archetypal introvert can find a person to love to confess to and talk closely with. An extreme extrovert will also find individuals he will not open to or even avoid. The willingness to talk to strangers may be strongly affected by one's experience. Once bitten, twice shy. Political views will have an effect. A bad hair day can ruin one's sociability. Take away good sleep, and good mood, and the extrovert will run away from people! On the other hand, a promotion can turn one into an extreme extrovert for a while. Even a can of beer can have this effect. This quickly shows how easy it is to confuse optimism, enthusiasm, passion, or a happy state of mind with extroversion. I am sure a great deal of my own extroversion comes from good sleep and predominantly good mood.

If social context determines the degree of extroversion, this means that the whole history of socialization will affect how we respond to others. When I was an alpha in the 4th grade, or a bully in high school, I was an extremely outgoing extrovert. When I was myself bullied in a summer camp 1974, I had no one to talk to. I kept hiding. I was probably a bit too smart and too young for the other kids to be easily tolerated. That context turned me into an extreme introvert. A mix of similar experiences can determine developmental trajectory. This tells me that you can entirely transform this outgoing sociability characteristic.

Could leadership skills define extroversion? Those are trainable and depend on the context. I recall myself in leadership positions and in contexts when I tried to be invisible.

Assertiveness depends on the knowledge and the strength of models. I am stubborn like a mule in the area of brains science, but will easily submit to your opinion when it comes to car technology.

Is desire of social attention a defining characteristic of extroverts. If so, it can easily be confused with narcissism.

What else could define an extrovert? Talkativeness? It depends on the interlocutor, context, subject, and mental energy. It depends on the size of your knowledge bank and your mood. In my circadian peak, I will talk your head off. However, in my peak creativity time in the morning, I will rather put a lid on my bunker. I am pretty talkative about schooling and rather mute when it comes to matters of religion.

Is optimum level of arousal the key to extroversion as claimed by Eysenck or Prof. Brian Little? It depends on the job! For maximum creativity, chaos of high arousal is not a problem, you only need to find ways to pickup the creative pieces. This can come naturally with the adherence to the creativity cycle. Arousal interpretation leads to easy confusion of extroversion with novelty seeking and risk taking.

Risk taking, on the other hand, is also subject to change. I took astronomical risks as a teen and now have avoided all forms of transportation for 6 years at the moment of writing. However, this risk-aversion is domain dependent. I still love to swim out in a stormy sea in winter. This is also circadian. I am a risk taker only at my noon peak.

Do extroverts gain energy from social interaction? Do introverts lose energy in social interaction? It depends on who we interact with. It depends on time of day, mood, prior sleep, and more. An extrovert can quickly lose energy when he meets a bigger extrovert. An introvert can get energized by finding her own social match. I get as much energy from ideas as I get from people. Both are great stimulants. Both can be exhausting after a while. After all, this is part of the homeostatic sleep drive. The brain is supposed to explode in activity and then consume the effects in sleep. Transition feels like exhaustion, and this is good.

Shyness is classically confused with introversion. So is social anxiety or even neuroticism, which is a separate trait in Big Five constellation. Highly sensitive person, acc. to Elaine Aron is often described as an introvert. Actually, according to Aron, this is the personality described by Susan Cain.

The sociability factor must be subject to some kind of homeostasis. If we are forced into the company of others for prolonged periods, we will soon look for an escape. In contrast, extreme isolation will produce social cravings. I am intimately familiar with extreme social isolation. In 1994, I set up 2 week creative vacation with minimal human contact. That was the period when even a short chat with a guy in a hamburger stand would provide major relief. In other words, we all need some interaction, the degree of that attraction is highly personal and it is highly affected by history of one's own socialization and experience in life.

Susan Cain's definition

Susan Cain looks like a perfect extrovert. She is a great communicator with a broad smile. She claims it is an act. This must be a genius act then! I see it differently. My biggest beef with Susan Cain is that she keeps speaking about the love introverts have for contemplation, deep thinking, reading, self-reflection, etc. If you read my How to solve any problem?, you will see that it is hardly possible to solve problems efficiently without a pause and reflection. Some people may get that in a car or in a shower. I claim we need bigger blocks of "protected mode". This has nothing to do with personality traits. It is all about creativity and focus, and everyone should be able to achieve that.

Are introverts more creative?

By Cain's standard, I am an extreme introvert in the morning, and an extreme extrovert by noon. My evenings are more varied and it would be hard to put a label on them. Who is more creative then, morning introvert immersed in his ideas, or a brainstorming extrovert of the noon. My text should make it obvious: we need both. The right mix yields maximum creativity. Is there a person out there who does not enjoy a few minutes on her own? Are there people who enjoy the company of others when they go to the toilet (texting excluded)?

If we take Cain's definition of introversion, we can easily see that some people will hate to be introverts for one simple reason: they have no material to work on their own. To enjoy creative mornings, I need a goal. I need a problem to work on. If I did not have that plastic material, solitude would be extremely boring and unpleasant. For that type of introversion, you need a high degree of learn drive combined with positive creative energy.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claims that creative people are a mix of introversion and extroversion. I will go a step further and insist that highly creative people follow the natural creativity cycle that makes them cycle between those modes of mental work on a daily basis. Anyone who experiences only one side of that spectrum is likely to be handicapped. Introverts can do a great math theory, but will find it hard to communicate it effectively to others. Introversion might be good for focus, but it makes it hard to change history. Most of all, introverts will not fare well in a team working over the hyperloop.

To land on the moon, we needed both the teamwork of NASA and the extreme introversion of Isaac Newton.

By Eysenck definition, higher cortical activation should boost creativity in extroverts, but, in a creative state, it does not matter if you are in a group or on your own, the brain can be buzzing with ideas and energy. Dopamine alone isn't about social interaction, but about the brain state. Ideas can be as exciting as people. The source of energy does not matter in creativity. The creative drive just needs to be in place.

Is there an extroversion gene?

When psychology is in doubt, it reaches for exact science. However, difference in brain imagining cannot be used to define extroversion if extroversion is just a brain state. All differences will separate states, not personalities.

If there is a correlation with response to dopamine, there could be a monstrous confusion with optimism, happiness, novelty seeking, openness to experience, agreeableness, or even circadian phase. If source of mental energy was to differ (people vs. ideas), the release of dopamine would depend on the context, and a mere experimental design could determine the outcome. In the end, I have to voice my strong skepticism. There are screaming extroverts out there, but are they genetic extroverts? Are there kids that are born to be extroverts, or can early childhood tip the balance towards introversion? If I said that genetic extroversion trait did not exist, I would stand in opposition to the entire field of psychology. I will not go that far. Until I see a specific gene or set of genes that strongly underlies the trait of extroversion, I will reserve my judgement. Your brain will determine your trajectory, but your environment, context and even the circadian cycle can change you from an extrovert to an introvert in a matter of hours. The term "extrovert" is useful, it is popular, but it is over-rated.

I am sure I could train a young introvert in extroversion. It is a matter of reward. If you put an introvert into a rewarding social context, his extroversion will keep growing. Inversely, the same person in a setting that penalizes the effect of extroversion will enhance introversion.

There might be many genes that make people gravitate towards extroversion, but a specific gene for that specific trait may be hard to find

The Verdict

So who is more creative: introverts or extroverts?

Introverts have one big advantage. They will naturally waste less time on empty socializing. This will provide more room for contemplation. However, extroverts seem more free in life. If they can control their urges, there are limited by fewer inhibitions.

When looking for optimum development, we need to strive at growing brains where the degree of extroversion is determined by the needs, not by psychological inhibitions. Sociability, talkativeness, or risk taking can all serve a purpose, and they should not be blocked by inner constraints. They are all knowledge-dependent and trainable.

This makes me claim that extroversion may also be a skill and it may be a skill that is harder to master than introversion. Extroversion depends on social context and depends on others. This is why it is harder. It someone shows a natural predisposition to be an extrovert, his life will likely be easier. In that sense, I prefer to stay extrovert, and turn an introvert, in Cain's sense, at the time of highest solo creativity.

Highly creative people switch between extro- and intro- modes on demand

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru