Labels as an Excuse: the Misappropriation of the Extraversion Personality Construct

I don’t believe in personality tests. It probably has something to do with the time that I did a test with some classmates, and we were all supposed to gather together with people whose results resembled our own. It was one of those ones where you answer questions, and then get a set of four numbers which you plot across two axes, ending up with a quadrilateral that is predominantly in one of the quadrants. Then you look in the book to see what your label is. (I remember that one of the labels was “Leader”, so looking back, I’m a little suspicious.) So everybody went running around looking for people with the same kind of quadrilateral as them. Did I mention I came out as a perfect diamond on this particularly one – I didn’t “go” in any of the groups.

“What does that make me?” I asked the teacher.

“Awkward.”

Hey, at least he was honest.

But here’s the thing – personality is not all of who you are, but it is a large part of how you express your identity. And when we reduce people to labels, and numbers in quizzes, and “which box do you fit in”, we oversimplify things. We reduce people to roles, and therefore limit their ability to fulfil their potential, and we exclude people that don’t quite fit in the boxes. Which disempowers the people who already know that they are different, and impoverishes the society which marginalises them. Lose-lose, really.

I’m going to be controversial here. I don’t like the way society has grabbed on to the whole extravert-introvert thing. I think we sell ourselves short. (If you’re interested, the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain is what got me started on all this.)

We had dinner guests on Saturday.

“I’m 60% introvert,” he said, “Definitely. And she’s 95% introvert.”

“Yeah, I could so do without people,” she nodded.

“I like that bit of the book that talks about the kind of houses that introverts like – with lots of alcoves you can go and hide in. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Alcoves, where you could go read your book.”

“No. I hate alcoves!”

Of course, I love the idea of alcoves – but only if they have wingback chairs and snugly blankets and windows so the sunlight can come streaming in over your shoulder and onto the book you’re reading or the craft you’re busy with.

But that’s the point. A woman writes a book about being an introvert, and how introverts are overlooked in society but have a contribution to make, and suddenly every single generalisation that she makes about introverts generally must apply to each introvert individually. And the more of an introvert you are, the more these generalisations apply. So Mrs 95% Introvert must love alcoves more than Mr 60% Introvert – 35% more to be exact.

But introversion – extraversion is not synonymous with personality. There are multiple models of personality out there – the most prevalent when I was studying psychology was the Big 5, which has extraversion as one of 5 facets. But the other four are much less fashionable (especially conscientiousness), so we’ll just stick to extraversion. Never mind that the little scores in the boxes don’t reflect who you actually are – they indicate trends in who you may be, how you might react, what could be (any statistician can tell you that these tests are useful when applied to a population, but their applicability decreases when applied to the individual).

We treat these labels as absolutes, but they are not. We use them to explain away bad judgement, poor decision-making and lack of character. We put people in a box, and assume that suddenly we know everything about them.

And if they don’t fit in the box, we tell them they must change. Which is problematic, because I quite like being a diamond.

I’m not for changing.

 

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