- People high in extraversion appear to have a number of health benefits, particularly in managing stress.
- A new study examines introversion as a possible risk factor in adapting to a laboratory-induced stress.
- By tapping into their strengths, introverts can find a route to a longer and healthier life.
People who are introverted greatly prefer to have the opportunity to think, reflect, and mull over their everyday experiences. Unlike their extraverted counterparts, who enjoy being around other people and relish the opportunity to seek excitement, introverts enjoy the “alone” time that allows them to explore their inner pursuits.
You might think that the quieter life of the introvert could be beneficial to health. After all, people high in extraversion put themselves in situations that could be, if not risky, then at least stressful. Even the most extraverted extravert could be at least slightly intimidated when put on the spot, as when they have to speak or give a presentation to a roomful of scrutinizing onlookers. If anything, their willingness to put themselves on the line could lead them into the very situations that could subject them to at least a few moments of discomfort.
By putting themselves into higher-stress situations, is it possible that extraverted individuals are more likely to develop unhealthy physiological reactions? Those moments in which their hearts beat more rapidly as they ascend to a podium or head of the room could, over the years, potentially take their toll.
Health and the Extraversion–Introversion Relationship
According to Baylor University’s Adam O’Riordan and colleagues (2023), it's quite the opposite, and there are actually a host of stress-busting benefits enjoyed by extraverts that could indeed lengthen rather than shorten their lives. People high in extraversion have far superior cardiovascular functioning than those low in this quality, potentially due to their ability “to adaptively tolerate and cope with psychological stress." Not only do they perceive the events in their lives as less stressful, but they also look for opportunities to engage in so-called positively stressful events (e.g., standing up to that podium).
However, this extraversion advantage isn’t true across the board. In some laboratory-induced stressful situations, extraverts performed similarly to introverts in terms of cardiovascular responsivity. Furthermore, citing studies of older adults, O’Riordan et al. note that it's actually introverts who win life's marathon. Is it possible, then, that by the time they reach their later years, extraverts have subjected themselves to more stress than was healthy and actually died before reaching their 70s and 80s? In that case, those who are left are the introverts, and it's they who carry the longevity advantage. Perhaps these longer-living introverts have figured something out so that their personality becomes a strength, not a liability.
Comparing Extraverts and Introverts in the Lab
The Baylor U. study wasn’t able to tease apart the possible contributors of survival effects, but it did provide some insights into how during young adulthood, when people are theoretically at their healthiest, introversion–extraversion contributed to lab-based stress reactions.
The specific stressor they used was a four-minute neuropsychological assessment tool known as the PASAT (Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task), which places the test-taker into a highly demanding task. In the PASAT, while listening to a series of digits presented one at a time, your job is to retain the digit you’ve just seen and add it to the digit that will follow it (e.g., if you see a 4, you hold it in mind when the 3 appears next, and must respond “7”), all under intense time pressure.
Under normal administration of the PASAT, you would not be placed under any more stress than just to keep up with the task. In the experimental manipulation that O’Riordan et al. conducted, the 467 undergraduate participants faced several sources of added woe.
At set intervals, a buzzer would sound to indicate an incorrect response (regardless of what the participant did), and, to make matters worse, participants believed that other people were competing with them. A scoreboard set up in the room presented the fake scores from these other “participants.” Finally, throughout the task, participants were instructed to look at themselves in a mirror also set up in the lab.
Combined, these manipulations took what was already a difficult task and added a strong dose of both self-evaluation and competition. Participants went through all of this twice, 10 minutes apart, allowing the research team to compare how they performed not only during the task itself but also how they changed across the two administrations.
The question became who would show the more impaired cardiovascular reactions to these conditions, introverts or extraverts? To measure this component of personality, the authors administered a standard, brief scale derived from a larger personality inventory. The extraversion items assessed the qualities of gregariousness, assertiveness, preference for levels of activity, excitement-seeking, the experience of positive emotions, and warmth. With this single-dimensional scale, people scoring high would be considered extraverts, and those with low scores would fall into the introversion range.
In addition to having their heart rate and blood pressure measured throughout, participants rated their levels of the positive emotions of well-being, vigor, and calmness, and the negative emotions of anger, anxiety, and depression. The authors used these ratings to compare an index of reactivity based on the difference in emotions before and after the PASAT.
Turning now to the findings, it was indeed the introverts who seemed to suffer the most from exposure to the PASAT task based on all physiological and subjective ratings. The only area in which there was no difference from extraverts was in the cardiovascular habituation that participants showed across the two test administrations. Both introverts and extraverts adapted to the task's demands. Even so, as the authors concluded, “the majority of previous research is consistent with the current study findings reporting inverse associations between extraversion and cardiovascular reactivity to psychological stress."
The study unfortunately did not probe into the reasons that introverts and extraverts differed in their ability to adapt to the stress presented by the lab task. However, linking their work to previous research, the authors suggest that extraverts, unlike introverts, not only perceive less stress but also manage the stress they do experience by addressing the problem (not their feelings), seeking support from others, and rethinking a stressor as a challenge.
Avoiding the Introversion Disadvantage
There is a tendency for people to think of personality as fixed and, therefore, if you’re an introvert, you’re automatically looking at an unhealthier and shorter life. Instead, how can you become one of the lucky introvert survivors who managed to use their personality style to their advantage? Here are three ways to get there:
- Reframe stress. Noting that extraverts enter a stressful situation with a more positive attitude, adopt the cognitive reappraisal strategy that they seem to use. If you were in that PASAT experiment, for example, rather than see the “competitors” as people whom you will probably lose out to, why not see the whole situation as a game? Maybe it could even be fun!
- Use what you're body is doing to gain self-insight. If it’s true that your heart rate and blood pressure are bound to go up based on your tendency to internalize stress, there are ways you can tune into your body’s reactivity and prevent this from happening. Tapping into your natural tendencies of looking within yourself can be a way to turn your weakness into a strength.
- Reach out to others in the same situation. Thinking about social support as a coping method, revisit your assumption that your inner probings are all you need to survive life’s stressors. Again, putting yourself into that lab task, knowing that others are suffering as much as you are could help balance off the strain you feel by believing that you’re alone. If those other people were there in reality, this could be a further stress-buster. Recall times when you’ve been stressed such as by waiting in a long line at a food truck. Could it help you ease the tension by forcing yourself to turn to the person behind you and chat about the weather?
To sum up, being an introvert can place you at a disadvantage in handling stress, potentially eroding the quality and length of your life. By learning to use your introversion as a strength, your own life can be longer and more fulfilled.
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O'Riordan, A., Young, D. A., Tyra, A. T., & Ginty, A. T. (2023). Extraversion is associated with lower cardiovascular reactivity to acute psychological stress. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 189, 20–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2023.04.004