Thursday, March 19, 2015


One of the few worthwhile concepts to be popularized by Carl Jung was that of introversion. I had never thought about it much, but in 1985 when by chance I read Please Understand Me, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, I became intrigued. The book discusses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and contains a test that indicated that my type is INTJ. That was somewhat of a surprise to me because the description was fairly accurate and, according to the authors, it is one of the rarer of the sixteen types, hence isn't familiar to the more numerous types. The "I" in INTJ stands for introversion, and thereafter I had a framework for understanding how I'm not the same as most people.

After playing around with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for a few years and applying it to various people I decided that it had limited usefulness, but it does explain some basic personality differences. The most useful part, I find, is the introversion-extroversion scale. Basically, I enjoy being alone and enjoy being around people who also enjoy being alone. This is an important thing to know, especially in the U.S., where extroverts dominate practically everything. They do to such an extent that shy children are often seen as needing therapy or treatment. I suspect that introversion is more common in Europe and Asia, so it may be less likely that introverts will feel out of place there. For most of my life in the U.S. it has seemed to me that introverts are considered defective.

To put this into perspective, I like to think in terms of aptitudes that permit either introverts or extroverts to excel in various fields. Generally speaking, introverts are good at things that require a great deal of concentration over long periods of time, which typically involves solitary activity. I think that this gives introverts an advantage in science and writing. My guess is that Newton, Darwin, Einstein, George Eliot, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence - some of my favorite people - were introverts. Extroverts may do well in some kinds of writing, such as travel writing, journalism or popular fiction. The strong areas for extroverts are ones that involve a lot of contact with people. That would include politicians, business leaders, performers and professional athletes. However, not many people are completely introverted or completely extroverted, which means that these profiles don't necessarily work well in all situations.

Two prominent extroverts are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Neither is particularly introspective, and Clinton is probably more intelligent in the conventional sense. What they have in common is a need for approval and to be around a lot of people most of the time. Both are gregarious and able to connect well with people, but Roosevelt is more effective at public speaking. Clinton's weaknesses as a person get him into trouble in office, and the same could have happened to Roosevelt, who lived in a more private era. Whatever intellectual advantage Clinton may have was irrelevant to his presidency, because he is not an original thinker and simply adopts the ideas of those around him. Both Roosevelt and Clinton married opposites - Eleanor and Hillary are introverts - and this led to significant marital problems in both cases. Extroverts can benefit from the thoughtfulness of introverts to round out their decisions, but the two types are not deeply compatible. Introverts sometimes cluster around extroverts, who may have superior leadership skills, although extroverts are occasionally socially inept themselves.

While it seems to be a rarity to have extroverted people seek introverted roles, it is fairly common to find introverts seeking extroverted roles. Especially in the U.S., which is an extrovert paradise, introverts often think they're supposed to be extroverted. Some children are groomed to be social overachievers whether they like it or not. For this reason people like Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett become talk show hosts. People like Richard Nixon and Barack Obama become presidents. Millions of people attempt to become effective public speakers even though they hate it. Most of the time this is harmless, but in many cases the people might be happier if they accepted themselves for what they were.

Particularly bothersome to me is the case of an introvert taking a significant public role that he is not equipped to perform well. It is obvious to me that Barack Obama was not cut out to be president. He was not, is not, and will never be an inspiring public figure, which is perhaps the chief responsibility of the president. Even though I occasionally agree with his policies and reasoning, he has been unable to break out of the straitjacket that the Republicans have put him into because he doesn't know how to win people over. Compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt he is a political dunce of the worst kind. Bill Clinton was probably not a very good president, but people will always prefer him to Obama because they like him. In my opinion, introverts do not belong in the White House. In this vein, I've been thinking about Abraham Lincoln, another introvert. Although he is generally lauded as one of the greatest presidents ever for keeping the country unified and ending slavery, I have come to think that he made a colossal mistake by not allowing the Confederacy to secede from the United States. Part of the dysfunction in Washington to this day can still be attributed to North-South grievances dating from the Civil War. It is by no means obvious that if the Confederacy had become a separate country we would be in a worse condition than we are today. Slavery would probably have ended one way or another by about 1900, the economy of the South would have collapsed, and a war would have been averted. A case can be made that Lincoln had no idea what he was doing and does not deserve praise. The history books preempt the possibility of a thorough analysis, and it is now impossible to know with certainty what the outcome would have been without a Civil War.

There are probably evolutionary reasons for the population to contain a mix of introverts and extroverts. The extroverts are good at creating a sense of group unity, and the introverts are good at figuring out details. Either type can be creative, but I suspect that progress in both the arts and the sciences has been dominated by introverts. Besides the advantages of these kinds of specialization, it is possible that introverts have survived as an element in the gene pool simply because they historically tended to live in small groups and survived when disease afflicted large groups, causing higher mortality rates among extroverts.

I get the impression that there is a genetic component to introversion when I look at my family. My Armenian grandfather was extremely introverted. He was so shy that when his parents arranged his marriage he hid on his wedding night. Later in life he lived in a separate portion of his house, away from the rest of the family. Although my mother seemed social and was not particularly introverted, she didn't mind spending enormous amounts of time alone. Two out of her three children are introverts. I married an introvert, and our children are introverts. Of course, this is only anecdotal, but I suspect that research would bear out that introversion runs in families. As far as I'm concerned, introversion is normal, and no stigma should be attached to it. For one thing, it is not to be confused with timidity, and many people don't understand that there is a difference.

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