Acting Like an Extrovert Can Make You Happier
Personality psychology can incorporate behavior change experiments.
Posted September 13, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Extroversion is associated with higher levels of well-being than introversion.
- Making people act like an extrovert increases their overall sense of well-being compared to making people act like an introvert.
- Open questions remain about the long-term influence of manipulations like this.
The field of personality psychology explores people’s characteristics and relates those traits to a variety of behaviors and outcomes. The careful measurement techniques used in this field have allowed the field to build an extensive base of reliable data.
A central limitation of this work is that it is largely observational. That is, researchers measure traits and relate them to outcomes. Some sense of the influence of a trait on behavior can be gotten from longitudinal studies in which many waves of data are collected from the same people. In these studies, traits observed at one time can be linked to behavior at a later time in ways that can provide some sense of whether those traits caused those outcomes.
The gold standard for making a causal judgment about the link between a behavior and an outcome is being able to do an experiment that assigns conditions to participants. We cannot assign traits to people randomly in a study, so has limited the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn.
For example, studies have suggested that extroverts are happier overall than introverts. This finding has been observed consistently for decades. But, it is hard to know whether this reflects something about what makes people extroverts, or whether this is a reflection of the kinds of interactions people have when they act like an extrovert.
This specific question was addressed with an experiment by Seth Margolis and Sonja Lyubomirsky in an April 2020 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
The design of this experiment is straightforward. Participants were given descriptions of descriptors that are typical of extroverts (talkative, assertive, and spontaneous) and were told to act that way for a week. They were given descriptors that are typical of introverts (deliberate, quiet, and reserved) and were told to act that way for a week. The order in which they received the instructions was balanced across participants.
At the start of the study, a measure of people’s personality traits was taken. Along the way, the researchers gathered information about people’s actions to ensure that they followed instructions. They also got measures of well-being. Participants also rated how enjoyable the activities were for them.
Overall, participants exhibited higher levels of well-being on the week that they acted like an extrovert than the week that they acted like an introvert. This was true both for people who are high and those who are low in extroversion on the personality scales administered. So, this manipulation affected participants regardless of their level of extroversion when they started the study. The more that participants enjoyed the behaviors and felt they were meaningful, the larger the difference in well-being between the extrovert and introvert weeks.
Overall, this study suggests that acting like an extrovert, which leads people to have social interactions with others and to engage in new activities increases people’s sense of happiness and satisfaction compared to acting like an introvert and being more shy and reserved.
This study raises several interesting questions for future research. One is whether this effect would last over longer periods of time. That is, are people just reacting to the novelty of the change induced by the study, or would people acting like an extrovert remain happier and more satisfied with life if they kept this going for a longer period of time?
A second question is whether acting like an extrovert or an introvert for a substantial period of time would lead to lasting change in people’s perceptions of their own personality characteristics. One indication that might be so is that participants rated their personality characteristics each week during the study. On average, people rated themselves as more extroverted the week they acted like an extrovert than the week they acted like an introvert. Still, it would be interesting to see whether manipulations like this could be reliably related to changes in personality traits.
Observational studies like the ones traditionally done in personality research are likely to remain the most typical type of work in this field. However, this study demonstrates that experimental work can also play a role in understanding the relationship between the behaviors associated with personality traits and other outcomes.
Costa, P.T. & McCrae, R. R. (1980). Influence of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being: Happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(4), 668–678
Diener, E., Sandvik, E., Pavot, W., & Fujita, F. (1992). Extraversion and subjective well-being in a U.S. national probability sample, Journal of Research on Personality, 26(3), 205-215.
Margolis, S. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2020). Experimental manipulation of extraverted and introverted behavior and its effects on well-being. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(4), 719-731.