My love-hate relationship with personality testing began at summer camp.
I hadn’t heard about the test until a fellow staff member asked what my letters were. I must have looked at her like she had two heads, because she quickly added, “You know, like the Myers-Briggs test.”
She explained I could take an online test and answer a bunch of questions about myself. The test would assign me four letters, which stand for character traits.
I was only 14 at the time, younger than the other camp staff by at least four years. My motto that year was to do as the big kids do. The big kids were referring to themselves by letters, so that meant I needed to take the test.
I swiped the family laptop that weekend and found an online version of the Myers-Briggs test. I answered dozens of questions about what I liked to do in my spare time, how I reacted in certain situations, and words I used to describe myself. A lot of it seemed random to me, but hey, I just needed to get those letters.
Turns out, the Myers-Briggs gives you far more than an acronym. I also received a 12-page report outlining how I relate to people and make decisions.
Some of the results didn’t surprise me. I already knew I was an introvert who thinks logically and follows the rules. Still, I hadn’t thought much about how those traits applied to my life, like what jobs I’m suited for.
But the personality test turned out to be a double-edged sword. As those letters became part of everyday vocabulary at camp, I found myself putting people in categories. I stayed clear of the lifeguard because he was too extroverted. When I needed help with cleaning, I only asked people who the test said were organized. I told myself the crafts instructor wasn’t bossy — she was just a dominant personality.
On top of all those things, the biggest category I had to fight with was my introversion. Partly because of the Myers-Briggs and because of the language we used at camp, I thought of introverts as the always-quiet types who don’t belong in leadership positions and avoid public speaking. To me, that’s how “real introverts” like myself were meant to be.
What’s in a test?
Personality testing has invaded pop culture since Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers created the famous Myers-Briggs test in 1943.
I sat down with Ken Fehr, a high school psychology teacher who majored in social sciences at the University of Manitoba, to talk about these tests and how they relate to introversion.
According to Ken, most personality tests – like the Myers-Briggs – don’t have a lot of science behind them.
“Many tests, especially online, are categorizing people on simple questions that don’t really address the underlying issues,” he said.
This opinion has been echoed by all kinds of publications, including Psychology Today, Vox, Forbes, and Team Technology. One of the problems with these tests is they’re hard to verify. You’re answering the questions yourself, so your biases affect the test’s results.
Another problem is a lot of these tests encourage black-and-white thinking. Some tests are moving away from this, but your letters stand for either one trait or the other. You’re either a thinker or a feeler. A judger or a perceiver. So when my results read “I” for introvert, I took the test to the extreme.
In fact, Ken said, personality tests are often self-fulfilling prophecies. Every year he does an experiment with his students where he gives each of them the Myers-Briggs test. When they get their results back, he asks them to rank the test’s accuracy out of five, without talking to their classmates. He typically gets a lot of threes and fours, and even a decent number of fives.
Here’s the kicker: Ken actually gives all of his students the same results. Yet nine times out of ten, the students are convinced the test is accurate.
And that’s the problem.
“Almost all personality tests do not in any way say who you are. How could answering 20, 30, 40 questions really explain someone’s personality?” Ken asked. “Because if you are an introvert, but then you’re doing these things that get you out there — then what are you?”
What are you?
There is some argument in psychological circles about whether introversion results from genetics or our environment. For me, I suspect it was a combination of both.
My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. We lived at a few Bible camps around Southeastern Manitoba, which meant finding a school for me and my two sisters was practically a part-time job for my parents. Not to mention the only good schools in the southeast seemed to be 45 minutes away from wherever we were living.
Closer schools just never worked out. At one elementary school, all I remember was chaos. Kids ran awry throwing around chairs and swear words while the teacher hid behind her desk and waited for the day to be over. Meanwhile, I hid behind my desk and waited for the day to be over too. I was the shy church kid, and I didn’t know how to relate to that ragtag group of six-year-olds. But I never said anything to my parents, because I didn’t want to go to another school. Another school meant change.
Eventually, my parents figured out what was happening. They moved us to a little private school 45 minutes away, where chair-throwing was not tolerated. I was furious at my parents for the move, but I got used to it over time.
Being so far away from school meant playdates were rare. What parent would drive 45 minutes just for their kids to play Barbies?
As a result, I didn’t form close friendships with many kids. I relied on my independence and my imagination. I took long walks to my favourite spots around the camp, pretending I was someone cooler, someone who had more friends and wasn’t afraid of change.
Before I go too much into my own experiences with introversion, it’s important to set ground rules for what introversion actually is. From a scientific perspective, introversion and extroversion boil down to three main traits, according to Heidi Eve-Cahoon, writing for the Journal of Nursing Education: where you get your energy from, how you respond to stimulation, and how you approach knowledge. These are the criteria I’ll be using when I refer to introverts and extroverts.
Starting with the biggest factor, energy, it’s helpful to think of personality in terms of fuel: If introverts run on electricity, then extroverts run on gas. Introverts recharge on their own (electricity), and extroverts need time with people (gas). You can try to fill up an electric car at a gas station, but it won’t get you to drive another inch. Mind you, for every rule there’s an exception. There are also the ambiverts; the hybrid cars who need both gas and electricity to run.
The second factor, stimulation, affects introverts and extroverts differently. For example, take the stimulus of change. Change is typically harder for introverts than extroverts. If you’re unhappy about that, don’t blame me. It’s all dopamine’s fault.
Dopamine is the fun little chemical in your brain that motivates you to do things that feel rewarding, according to Jennifer Granneman in an article for Quiet Revolution. Dopamine is released when you do things like take a big bite out of that juicy cheeseburger you’ve been craving all day or receive a higher paycheck than you anticipated.
Introversion and extroversion don’t affect dopamine levels in your brain. These levels have to do with diet, sleep habits, and how much your brain naturally produces. But introversion and extroversion do affect the activity of your dopamine reward network, which ferries dopamine around from one end of the brain to the other. Without that network, dopamine can’t get where it’s supposed to.
Extroverts need more stimulation than introverts. Psychologist Melissa Hansen writes in an article for Therapy Changes that the more extroverted you are, the more dopamine receptors you have. The dopamine is more spread out.
Ambiverts sit in the middle of the spectrum. They have more pathways than introverts, but they can’t take as much stimulation as extroverts.
This is why extroverts typically enjoy getting a promotion or meeting someone new more than introverts. Their brains give them more chemical rewards (though they can still find that overwhelming if it’s a really big change). For people who fall on the introverted side of the scale and have fewer dopamine destinations, that chemical rush becomes too much, and they burn out quicker.
That’s why when I walked into a different classroom as a kid and looked at the unfamiliar decorations, sat at a different desk, and shook hands with new kids, I was overstimulated. I was — and still am — a slow mental processor; I need time to adjust to my surroundings. According to Eve-Cahoon, this methodical approach to knowledge is the third main introvert characteristic.
Change had a very different effect on Cheryl Harder, a fellow introvert. She had to learn to deal with less stimulation, not more.
“I used to be an extrovert,” she said. “Either I had friends over, or I’d go visiting — I was always with people.”
Then she married Fred Harder, a farmer whose idea of a good time involved staying at their secluded country home with a good cup of coffee.
For Cheryl, that kind of seclusion felt claustrophobic.
Two years into their marriage, Cheryl decided to get a pair of horses to help her cope. She needed to find something in the country to fall in love with. For her, that was the tipping point. Cheryl would go riding for hours; alone with her horse and her thoughts.
“The horses settled me,” she said. “They settled my thoughts and my heart. I think there was turmoil, making a drastic change like that.”
Today, Cheryl said she considers herself both an introvert and an extrovert (an ambivert). She suspects she always had both qualities, but while change for me meant learning to put myself out there and meet new people, for her it meant learning how to be alone.
I wrote a blog in grade seven. When I recently logged onto an old email account, it was like finding a long-forgotten time capsule.
It was as basic as an angsty tween girl blog gets, with a smattering of attitude-filled posts pasted on a woe-is-me black background. Over the course of seven years, my middle school diary had racked up about 300 views and one comment.
That one encouraging comment was from my youth leader Sherise, who could tell something was wrong and thought a blog was a good way for me to understand what I was feeling. Of course, if she had told me that was what the blog was for, I would never have written it. But Sherise knew I needed an outlet, and I knew I needed something to do.
The truth was, I started that blog because I was in real pain. I made more friends once we moved away from camp, but after a few years my outgoing best friend had drifted away from me. I don’t think she realized it or did it out of malice — she just connected better with a girl who had a similar personality type. Twelve-year-old me didn’t stand a chance. I was the logical introvert who preferred quiet conversations to her high-energy escapades.
Writing was easier. I had control over the letters on the page, even if I had no control over the people in my life. In some ways, I was still the young kid who took long walks around camp and didn’t know what it was like to open up to others.
I credit that angsty time capsule as the beginning of my love for writing. But I still deleted the blog when I rediscovered it. No one needs to know about my seventh-grade year, where introverts were second pick.
Psychologists have found that introvert and extrovert personalities are just as present online as they are in-person. But it’s not always as overt as you might think.
For one, how introverts and extroverts behave online depends on the platform, according to Information Research, an academic journal. For example, behaviouralists found through a series of surveys that extroverts are typically more active on Facebook, but personality doesn’t play a significant factor in the blogging community. Maybe the anonymity of blogging attracted me, an introvert.
Another thing to note about introvert behaviour, according to Krystal D’Costa, an anthropologist writing for the Scientific American Blog Network, is quality matters more than quantity.
Bringing back the electric car analogy, the nice thing about social networking for introverts is it gives them full control over their energy levels. D’Costa says introverts will sometimes prefer social networking over in-person interactions because they can opt-out at any time. Once you feel your battery draining, you can just log out of your Twitter account.
That’s not to say introverts all live on their phones so they can avoid being social. They also approach online posting differently than extroverts.
Going back to Eve-Cahoon’s three main introvert traits, how an introvert approaches knowledge comes into play here. An introvert’s methodical and measured thought process doesn’t always go well with the fast-paced online world. D’Costa says in general, introverts need more time to think about what they want to say. In my experience, by the time I’ve decided how to reply to someone’s comment, my Facebook feed already has a dozen updates.
This will look different depending on the person, but in general, this is why a lot of introverts are seen as the ghost followers of social media. It’s not that we don’t have a lot to say — we just need time to filter information.
Although my family left camp when I was ten years old, camp was still in my blood. I signed up to volunteer for an entire summer at Bird River Bible Camp as soon as I was 14, the minimum age for camp staff.
And being at camp that first summer was like slowly suffocating.
At camp, there are people everywhere. People crammed next to you at the lunch table, having a hundred loud conversations at once. People spread out outside, at skills stations, in line for bathrooms. And you can’t ever escape them. When you retreat to your cabin, there’s people there too.
I did a lot of exploring to get away from the people. My refuge was the rock wall (affectionately known as the Wall), one of the only natural climbing walls in Manitoba.
I’m afraid of heights. But I loved the calmness of the Wall. Spending time at the Wall helped me find a balance between time with people and time alone, and I no longer felt like I was suffocating. In fact, after a few summers I learned to belay, meaning I was the one holding the rope tied to the camper while they climbed.
On my fifth summer on staff, the rock wall leader told us she wasn’t coming back next year. That meant someone else had to take her place. The person with the next most experience was me.
I was terrified. I couldn’t lead a team. I would be responsible for running the programs, taking care of thousands of dollars of equipment, and making sure everyone stayed safe. I thought back to that Myers-Briggs test, the one that said I was an introvert — which I thought meant I who couldn’t manage people — and nearly refused. But there was no one else, so I got in by default.
Naturally, my logical brain went to work. I wrote down everything I would possibly have to do as a leader in a three-inch binder. I scrawled reminders on sticky notes and pasted them all over the dusty rock shed.
When I stood in front of the Wall the first day of camp, and campers and staff looked to me for guidance, I gave it. I slowly learned to appreciate my team members’ strengths and challenge them on their weaknesses. I never thought of myself as the “ideal leader” like the last rock wall head, but I was me. If binders and sticky notes were the key to my success, why shouldn’t I use them?
To lead or not to lead
If you had asked the 14-year-old me what makes a good leader, I would have gravitated toward extroverted qualities like someone who prefers to work in a team, motivates people, and acts decisively. The types of qualities that don’t come naturally to me.
Maggie Farrell says in the Journal of Library Administration that assumptions like these lead to missed opportunities for leadership positions. In other words, we need to re-evaluate what makes a good leader. Farrell says introvert qualities like analytical skills, openness to feedback, and organization are useful.
That’s also not to say introverts (and extroverts, for that matter) can’t adapt. When I was leading the Wall, I ran into a situation where one of my team members left out expensive equipment that would have been unusable if the weather had been worse. I knew I couldn’t just let it slide, but I hate confrontation. Still, I pulled the team member aside and talked to him about it, and it didn’t happen again.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, found introverts are capable of acting outside their natural tendencies. If they’re doing something they value, or they’re around people they love, they’ll put themselves out there.
In fact, a research psychologist named Richard Lippa found introverts are often skilled at imitating extroverted personalities. This is because many introverts are very self-aware and adapt their behaviour to their situation. It’s not that they’re trying to be deceptive, they’re just fitting the role that the setting calls for.
Cynthia Falk, another introvert I met with, is also familiar with leadership in her volunteer position. She helps people with emotional trauma at her church. Two nights a week, she meets with people, guiding them forward to emotional healing (it’s not therapy – Cynthia’s not a trained professional). On top of that, she talks in front of large groups of people at women’s events.
Yet Cynthia is still an introvert. At the end of the day, she goes home, turns off the music, and resets. She needs her alone time to be ready for the next day.
“I think you can train your introversion to know its place,” Cynthia said. “To allow it not to control you, but you control it.”
I learned to love public speaking after teaching a bunch of kids. Kids are funny to teach, because they only want one question answered: Are you interesting? This is what makes kids hard and easy to teach. They’ll be brutally honest about what they think is good, and they don’t give two shakes about what you do. You can tell a heart-wrenching story about finding your lost puppy, and chances are those six-to-nine-year-olds are wishing you’d tell a funny joke instead.
So I knew kids were a tough crowd, but when the ministry leader asked me if I wanted to speak the next Sunday in front of 150 kids, I said yes.
There I was, a 16-year-old who barely knew the gas from the brake pedal, trying to be interesting – while actually teaching something. I had detailed notes in the margins like, “Pause if the audience laughs. Make sure the kid who volunteers to go onstage stands on the right.”
I actually don’t know how it went; I think I blacked out the entire ten minutes I was up there. In any case, I reached the end of the lesson without any rotten fruit on my face. The ministry leader even videotaped the entire thing so I could watch it back and improve on my teaching next time.
Yes, there was a next time. I’ve kept teaching on Sundays ever since I was 16, only now I don’t write in the margins to pause when kids laugh. I like public speaking. I like trying to be interesting. Even if my heart still pounds like a ten-gallon drum every time it’s my turn to go onstage.
No Real Introverts
There are still introvert categories I’m working to remove in my life. Just when I think I’ve escaped the self-built cage of what a “real introvert” is supposed to be, I realize I’m only halfway out the door. I’m used to public speaking in front of kids, but I rarely teach adults. I’ve taken leadership opportunities at camp, but the idea of managing in the workplace terrifies me.
I still call myself an introvert. I’m energized by being alone, I need time to deal with change, and I agonize over every status update I post on Facebook. But I’m not a “real introvert” the way I thought my Myers-Briggs test said I should be.
In my opinion, there are no real introverts.