Friday 9 October 2015

FAQs on Acting Extraverted and Feeling Happier

One of the most well-established findings in personality psychology is that extraverts* tend to be "happier". By this I mean that individuals who are more assertive, talkative and sociable than they are passive, quiet and reserved, tend to experience more highly-activated pleasant emotions (e.g., lively, enthusiastic, excitement).

Intriguingly, acting extraverted might be as "good" as being extraverted when it comes to increasing your happiness. This has been demonstrated over and over again in the lab, using a paradigm pioneered by Dr. William Fleeson and colleagues. I've previously blogged about one of these studies, but the general procedure is that participants are randomly assigned to act, for example, talkative, assertive, and sociable, (i.e., extraverted) or passive, quiet, and reserved (i.e., introverted), or are given no instructions. They then participate in an interactive task while following these acting instructions. 

All of these studies show that participants who are instructed to act extraverted report feeling happier than participants who are instructed to act introverted. Here's the kicker: even introverts seem to enjoy acting extraverted!

People often find this somewhat surprising, so I (and other researchers in this area) get the same questions a lot. Here's an attempt to catalogue and answer some of these FAQs!

1. Are there any "costs" of acting extraverted for introverts?

It's an intuitively appealing idea that introverts might find it stressful and draining, or feel inauthentic, when asked to act "out of character". Professor Brian Little has warned that acting against one's "first nature" for prolonged periods of time will seriously tax the individual, physically and psychologically. But since we often need to enact "free traits" to get the things we want in life, Brian Little has also theorised about the need for "restorative resources" to mitigate the associated costs.

So what does the research say about the "hidden costs" objection? To date, there's actually no evidence that introverts find it distressing or overly-effortful (i.e., cognitively depleting) to act like an extravert. Paradoxically, introverts even report feeling more authentic (i.e., more like themselves) when they are acting more extraverted.

Arguably, however, this issue has not really been tested thoroughly. Each of these studies only looked at the short-term effects of brief periods of acting extraverted. So it's still an open question as to any repercussions might emerge after long-term, sustained periods of acting extraverted. In the meanwhile, it seems that occasional bursts of extraverted behaviours are unlikely to harm introverts.

2. If acting extraverted is so enjoyable, then why don't introverts act extraverted more often?

There are several reasons why introverts—people who act extraverted less oftenstill exist. First, there's a difference between "wanting" a reward and "liking" it. So it might be that introverts are less motivated to act extraverted, even if they usually enjoy the experience. Related to this, there's also evidence that introverts are less likely to expend effort to increase their happiness. In line with the idea that individuals differ in what emotions they prefer to feel (ideal affect), this suggests that introverts may not even want to be "happy" in the exuberant sense.

Another reason, from an affective forecasting perspective, is that we are often wrong about what will make us happy. But these predicted emotions—how we expect to feel—influence our decisions. Indeed, Dr. John Zelenski and colleagues found that introverts underestimate how enjoyable acting extraverted can be, and overestimate how self-conscious and distressed it would make them feel. Given these motivational factors, it's not too mystifying that not everyone is an extravert.

3. Does this finding only apply in cultures where extraversion is more highly valued?

To date, "acting extraverted" lab experiments have only been conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. These are all "WEIRD" (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) countries where extraverted traits are arguably more culturally valued.

However, a recent cross-cultural study sheds some light on this issue. Instead of instructing participants to act extraverted or introverted, this team of researchers just asked participants to report how extraverted they behaved each day, and how happy they felt that day, across 20 days. In all five countries—U.S., Venezuela, Philippines, China, and Japan—individuals reported feeling happier on days when they reported acting more extraverted, and the strength of this effect was similar across cultures.

So even though there hasn't yet been a lab-based study in a non-WEIRD country, this study suggests that the finding that extraverted moments are happier might generalise across cultures. Of course, this remains to be tested.

4. Should introverts act more extraverted?

In the end, these studies are descriptive: they just tell you how happy you are likely to feel if you act extraverted rather than introverted. No one is saying that there's anything wrong with being introverted, or that everyone should act extraverted, like, all the time. Not only would that be super annoying (and I'm speaking as an extravert!); it would also be inappropriate in many situations (e.g., at the library, on a meditation retreat, at a funeral).

There are also questions about whether experiencing and pursuing happiness is always a good thing, and whether you can have too much happiness. And in any case, most people—introverted or extraverted—are already pretty happy overall.

All this said, some of these researchers see a potential application of these findings. This is because so far, the research does suggest that acting extraverted could be a simple and effective way to increase your happiness, without any apparent drawbacks.

In the end, I personally see acting extraverted as just another strategy or "tool" that people might be able to use as a way to regulate their emotions, in times when they feel like doing so. I think people should be aware that it's out there, but the decision as to whether or when to use it is totally in your hands.


*My use of "extraversion" and "introversion" is as empirically described by the Big Five framework. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman and Dr. Luke Smillie have both written fantastic articles describing the varying conceptualisations of "introversion" in popular culture.

The structure of this post was largely inspired by a very informative book chapter by Dr. John Zelenski, which thoughtfully addressed a series of objections about the finding that trait extraverts tend to be happier:
Zelenski, J. M., Sobocko, K., & Whelan, D. C. (2014). Introversion, solitude, and subjective well-being. In R. J. Coplan and J. C. Bowker (Eds.), The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone. (pp. 184-201). Wiley-Blackwell.
This post was also partly motivated by two examiners of my Honours thesis, who expressed curiosity about issues relating to FAQs #1, #2 and #4.

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