“You're at a karaoke bar and everyone is insisting it's your turn to sing; what do you do?”

This is the third question on yet another online quiz attempting to determine whether I am an extrovert or an introvert. I scroll through the answers, not liking any particular one. Depending on the circumstance, I could be at either end of the social spectrum: singing on stage or sitting in the corner. The classifications of introvert and extrovert sometimes seem like two ends of a seesaw. Despite how complicated our personalities may be, we are pressured to pick a side and stay there. What does it mean to be an extrovert or an introvert? What value should be ascribed to such associations?

Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet Revolution,” has dedicated most of her professional career to studying and promoting the underappreciated value of introverts. In her bestseller, Cain argues that American culture misunderstands the meaning of introversion. With “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight,” modern America hoists extroversion up onto a social pedestal. This leads to a host of logical and social fallacies. Assertiveness and strong public speaking skills are automatically associated with superior leadership. However, the presence of a domineering personality can actually detract from the quality or efficacy of a team.

When the leader is the loudest person in the room, better ideas proposed by quieter group members are ignored or dismissed. This results in a psychological phenomenon called “groupthink.” Groupthink occurs when the desire for consensus, harmony and conformity drives a team to make irrational decisions. Rather than critically evaluating alternative solutions, group members go with the idea posed by the most dominant individual. Although it seems that the team is being efficient and cooperative, they are actually suffering from losses in creativity and independent thinking. Researchers at Emory University, including neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, have studied the concept of groupthink at great length. They’ve discovered that when people defy group consensus, they display increased activity in brain regions associated with fear and stress (such as the amygdala). Because our brains are programmed to avoid social conflict, loud leadership can become a trigger for conformity rather than a mechanism of productivity.

The binary of extroversion versus introversion is accompanied by the question of better or worse. There are benefits and detriments to either side. Extroverts are painted as bold yet unyielding while introverts are described as thoughtful yet unassertive. If we take both the good and the bad into account, how do we decide which identity is best?

As expected, there is no one answer to this questions. Both introverts and extroverts – and everyone in between – are valuable to group dynamics. However, careful combination of these temperaments can be leveraged to create a healthy and positive work environment. According to researcher Adam Grant of the University Of Pennsylvania Wharton School Of Business, the success of introverted and extroverted leaders is relative to the personality of their team members. When employees were more passive, extroverted leadership was effective in providing a vision and motivating the group to action. However, when employees were more proactive, an introverted leader maximized productivity by listening to new ideas and providing the independence to innovate. Considering these conclusions, it appears that the advantages of extroversion and introversion are contextually dependent. Instead of wondering whether our personality fits the mold of a group, we might be better served considering if the mold of the group fits our personality.

In spite of this wealth of research, I still am wary to buy into the notion of an extrovert versus introvert world. What if we don’t sit on either end of the social seesaw but position ourselves at its fulcrum? When the circumstances of life require it, we can scoot closer to the side of the socializers or ease toward the end of the listeners. Like any sort of constructed binary, it is irrational to confine ourselves to one side, helplessly rising and falling with the tipping of the social scales.

My instinct leads me towards introversion, and I am proud of it. However, if you ever need someone to embarrass themselves with a bad rendition of Whitney Houston at karaoke night, feel free to let me know.

Kimberly Bress is a junior in college scholars and can be reached at kbress@vols.utk.edu.

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