Friday, July 26, 2013

Attack of the Extroverts!

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.     -This saying is older than Abe Lincoln or Mark Twain. No one is sure who first said it. 

study observing introverts and extroverts has shown that introverts feel happier when they act like extroverts. Why? Professors of psychology, shockingly, can't figure that out. It's rather amusing to watch people who believe in a certain understanding of the mind struggle with a reality that does not conform to it, and in the process, reveal their stunning ignorance. In this case, a lack of understanding of personal motivation is making the shrinks look stupid. They assume that people find greater peace and satisfaction in simply acting naturally and being themselves, and somehow, this research doesn't corroborate that.

They aren't thinking economically.

It isn't simply about what's going on internally: the experiences of people in social situation, like parties or presentations, carry their own feedback, and people are certainly more outwardly-focused than these so-called experts are making them out to be. It's not simply the personal satisfaction of accomplishing a goal or getting a dopamine hit. Those things rely on the individual's ability to get what they want from the world around them.

So let's consider it through a different lens, one closer to social exchange theory than the feel-good dogmas of modern academic psychology.

The Marketable Man

Social interaction is made up of exchanges in the attention economy. Attention is the currency. Starting from here, think about the personalities involved.

The goal is simple acquisition of currency from a shallow perspective, but more deeply, it's the creation of relationships, the acquisition of information, shared identity, the establishment of community. The reward is empowerment through people, through the creation of social capital.

And a party of any kind usually comes down to a gathering of people who don't know each other all that well, but want to get into the mix. Everyone gets dressed in their coolest clothes, presenting themselves like companies issuing an IPO on the stock market.
And there's plenty of competition
They jump into an environment full of flirtations, witty rejoinders, humblebrags and low-key shit-talking. Those who are relaxed and confident, funny and attractive, they do the best. No telling what they'll look like in the morning, but hey: it's no risk, no reward when forging new speculative ventures.

The risks? You could be ignored, which means that you've wasted a little effort and been reminded that others aren't listening to you, which hits the self-esteem. Competition means that you are dealing with opportunity costs as people decide if they want to be around you or someone else. Everyone's calculations will be a little different, and the party frequently ends up divided into like-minded groups of people with things in common, a mini caste system. There is a more vivid risk, that you will be rejected or judged and that your input will end up hurting your chances of being liked, respected, listened to.

Introverts engage people carefully and selectively, whereas extroverts cast the net wide in their search for attention, playing the numbers, Roosh-style, developing the skill. And yes, extroverts get laid more, have more friends, present more effectively at work meetings, and have more connections generally.

Introverts are very conservative in their behavior, as they don't take chances and frequently expect the worst. In financial terms, they aren't doing high-risk, high-reward. They're staying alive with CD's from the bank, betting on sure things alone. They aren't constantly chatting up the pretty girl or trying to make business connections with guys up the ladder. They don't shove themselves into your face, but typically mind their business and expand their sphere cautiously. That's the result of feedback, of lessons learned: introverts, at first, do see more ways things can go wrong, are more conscientious of what they say, and calculate more, and the hesitation becomes part of their demeanor after a while.

Now, why do introverts seem to be happier when they act like extroverts? Because they DO expect the worst, and the worst rarely happens. Our culture has been pushing nonjudgmentalism for a long time now, and it's very rare for people to flat-out tell one another that they don't like them, or to shame them in some way. We are, remember, more and more a culture of niceness to the point of dishonesty or absurdity. When it comes to dealing others, we're like Thumper in Bambi: if you can't say something nice...  

The result is, when introverts do take a chance, they feel empowered. They don't need to be in love with attention to enjoy this, just like people don't have to be in love with money to enjoy having more of it. People get a kick of pleasure when things go better than expected.

That experience of better-than-expected feedback is a lot like the one I learned when I first tried out opening a small business. It looks risky from the outside, tough to pull off, and the people who get into it might seem intense, cliquish, almost like a different species. But the more you try, the more you figure out that normal people can do it if they really care, and have some drive, a decent instinct on who to trust, plus a decent idea. Both the pleasures and pains of throwing yourself out into the market have been exaggerated.

But that doesn't mean that everyone should do it.

Extroversion is Still Overrated

The thing about the commentary on the study that gets annoying is the constant references to brain biology, which constantly underrates how people are shaped by interactions. Genetics matter, but not to the point of being absolutely deterministic. And just because people are tolerant to the point of rarely being rude doesn't mean that they like everyone equally.

Sometimes, extroverts are obnoxious. When you meet one of those people who absolutely refuses to shut the fuck up, it gets annoying.

You can only say that people enjoy being extroverted when you assume the feedback they get is positive. If you're outgoing with a group that doesn't approve, then the results likely won't make anyone feel better. There's safety and growth in being a part of the group - to a degree - but the welcome isn't guaranteed just because we say everyone should be inclusive. Today, people are less likely to call you out when you say something stupid, but they still know you've said something stupid.

The researchers tend to act like everyone treats everyone the same and the only difference is in the way the subject experiences otherwise-identical feedback. That's certainly not the case: you know that smart, funny, good-looking people get treated differently than those who are not, and while shame and insult might be more rare than a polite dismissal, we are attuned to recognize when the people we're around would prefer to be around someone else. The disapproval is subtle, but it's there. I know of marriages that have ended because of these subtleties, when all the fakery in the world won't save one from another's real opinion.

So obviously, I'm not convinced that opening up to everyone creates more happiness all the time; for the introvert acting extroverted, the yields probably drop as time goes on and the expectations change. Extroverts play social games more fluently, and they will always say they're happy. They have a lot of experience marketing themselves, and they know that it's a bad idea to present a face to the world that reflects their own anxiety or frustration. The "extroverts are happy" results of the study are from self-assessments: would you expect them to tell the truth all the time? Even to themselves?

And of course, in a society so attention hungry, those who avoid the crowds will be looked at like freaks by those who don't, which just might have something to do with the results of the study. Some extroverts will hold their tongues as they judge those who value their time alone, with their weird recalcitrance and suspiciously measured behavior, but the judgment will be there. There will probably always be an impression that those who don't talk have something to hide and are less trustworthy, or they don't have anything to say at all and are less interesting. Extroverts want everyone networking all the time, because despite the measured wrongness of the idea, they think that society is more efficient, effective, and enjoyable if you do everything in groups. Minding your business? That's for standoffish dicks.

The ideal of the extrovert, and of living in an extroverted world, is an ideal where trust can be taken for granted. It's an ideal built on openness to experience, viewing people as good and each new personality as a greener pasture. An eternal optimist will always see potential in new faces, all the upsides and none of the potential downsides.

The economic view of the situation creates two different attitudes, and these attitudes can be seen as perspectives that you can take towards market economies in general. In the optimist's view of economic exchange, human interaction is a beneficial, binding, enriching fusion into a big happy family filled with people who really want to make each other's lives better, and they have only minimal concern for whether they are giving more than they're getting out of it. The other way to look at the economy is as a competitive environment with winners and losers, risks to go along with the rewards.

There is a difference between those who look at the current global economic situation and see a coming-together of disparate cultures for mutual beneficial exchange where pointless barriers are broken, and those who see a new challenge for their culture to win, where there is a real danger of ending up becoming lost in the shuffle. You can say that both are right, but in a competitive world, the latter is closer to holding an honest assessment of the situation's dangers than the former. The optimists aren't expecting to end up on the losing end, either, and that's why they can be optimistic.

These perspectives come into play when you're meeting people, too.

But would you really want a society where every individual is out there scrambling for all the attention they can get, screaming for it, never listening and barely able to wait for their turn to speak? Do you want a society where the introverts become extroverts and add their desire for attention into an overcrowded marketplace? Isn't the competition ruthless enough? We're already halfway there, so ask yourself: does it make for a better culture?

Attention is scarce, and thus its distribution will be unequal. We will always have the wallflower and the life of the party, in relative terms. The distribution of attention that comes from these differences may not be the most efficient, or productive, or morally correct by any standard. That's why cultures have formal hierarchies and organization: because when it matters, qualifications and experience give someone's input greater value than coincidentally having a talent for attracting eyeballs.

Just because they're interesting doesn't make them the right people to pay attention to. As often as not, I'd gamble that the type of people who put more effort into making sure they are heard don't put as much effort into making sure they have something of importance to say. It's the empowerment they're after, as individuals, competing. And it's often just better to tune them out, or stay at home and drink with people you know.

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