Chapter 5: Extroversion – the social dimension – From Fear to Flow


Extroversion – the social dimension


The personality dimension most strongly related to interpersonal information seeking is extroversion. For extroverts, information seeking is often a form of social interaction. They frequently find information through discussion with others, such as friends, family, peers, superiors or teachers. In addition the extroverts’ upbeat temperament shines through in their enthusiastic and spontaneous searches. Extroverts often have a task-oriented, practical approach to information seeking, as opposed to introverts, who tend to be more analytical and reflective.

One outgoing searcher describes his way to collect information in Figure 5.1.

Figure 5.1 The outgoing searcher

Extroverted persons are typically gregarious, social and lively, as well as adventurous, assertive and straightforward. Introverts are commonly portrayed as independent, quiet, reserved, steady and shy (Costa and McCrae, 1992). As an example, extroverts are spontaneous and talkative, while introverts deliberate more before they act. It seems that one of the basic differences between the traits lies in the need for and source of energy, which extroverts get from the outside and introverts find within (Pickering and Gray, 2001).

Extroverts feel drained and bored if they find themselves alone, and energized in the company of others and among a multitude of incentives. Introverts value privacy, and need quiet time alone to recharge.

An introverted searcher describes her information approach in Figure 5.2.

Figure 5.2 The introverted searcher

Extroversion-introversion has in many contexts proved to be one of the most evident and dominant trait dimensions. This is reflected in daily language, where the most common trait descriptors tend to be terms that refer to how social, outgoing or energetic a person is (McCrae and John, 1992).

In addition, extroversion has for a long time been a robust and dominating dimension in various models of personality. For instance, Jung (1941) depicted extroversion-introversion as one of the three basic trait dimensions along with sensing-intuition and thinking-feeling. Another early model of personality introduced extroversion-introversion as an essential component of personality alongside neuroticism and psychoticism (Eysenck, 1952). As other models of personality traits followed, the dimension remained stable and visible, and was seldom overlooked. But it is not only in our daily language or in theoretical models that the robustness of the dimension is demonstrated. The strongest confirmation of the profoundness and importance of the trait is found in its physiological base (Pickering and Corr, 2008).

The extroversion-introversion dimension has a neurophysiological foundation, grounded in genetic disposition (Eysenck, 1952). Extroverts typically have an active behavioral activation system (BAS), which is a neuropsychological mechanism that orients the organism towards reward and potentially positive experiences (Pickering and Corr, 2008). Persons with a highly active BAS are typically energetic, impulsive and alert, as well as optimistic, fun seeking and confident. These characteristics are success concepts that enhance performance and spur effort (Watson and Clark, 1997). The extroverts’ activity, impulsivity and excitement seeking thus seem grounded in basic neurological processes (Pickering and Corr, 2008).

The extroversion-introversion dimension has moreover been explained by arousal level. It has been suggested that introverts are innately more aroused, and have an active internal life which provides them with impulses. The introverts’ rich inner world thus makes them largely self-sufficient, and provides them with the excitement that extroverts seek from their environment. While extroverts get energized by outer stimulation, introverts get their energy from within through their analytical, reflective and imaginative character. Extroverts’ lower arousal level may explain why they have a higher need for outer incentives than introverts, and a stronger drive to seek out activity and social interaction (Pickering and Gray, 2001). An alternative explanation which mirrors this theory suggests that introverts are more sensitive and reactive to outside stimulation than extroverts (Stelmack and Rammsayer, 2008). An abundance of sensory input such as sounds, images and social interaction may be over-stimulating and stressful for introverts, and have a negative influence on their performance. Extroverts thrive among the very same incentives. Extroverts again easily feel restless and bored in situations which introverts find serene. While an introvert thus tries to avoid over-stimulation, an extrovert is equally compelled to shun under-stimulation. This also explains their vigorous quest for experiences, social interaction and activities.

Interpersonal information interaction

The extroverts’ enthusiasm, as well as their need for outer stimulation, social activity and new impulses, also reflects in their information behavior. Extroversion tends to induce active and interpersonal information seeking in various contexts. This is an excellent example of how a personality trait reflects into a general overall pattern of preferred behavior, and also shines through when it comes to information seeking. What seems typical for extroverts is interactive information seeking. As extroverts are talkative and outgoing by nature, their preference for other people as information sources is likely to be an automatic, self-evident way for them to collect information, at least as a starting point. At the same time as they retrieve information, they enjoy the social interaction in itself and the stimulation it provides. For instance, in a study context where students collected information for a master’s thesis it was found that outgoing students more often than others consulted teachers, supervisors and friends as information sources. Supervisors and teachers are good sources for direct guidelines and literature suggestions, while fellow students provide the opportunity for informal feedback and exchange of ideas (Heinström, 2002). Similar results have been found in other contexts. One study, for instance, showed that the need for social interaction and the tendency to look to authorities for help in a decision process were typical for extroverts (Sims, 2002). Extroverts may also be less independent in their work, and prefer to learn in interaction with others.

Myers-Briggs extended the personality model of Jung (1941) to include a fourth personality dimension, judging-perceiving, in addition to Jung’s three basic dimensions of extroversion-introversion, sensing-intuition and thinking-feeling. These four dimensions can be combined to describe 16 different personality types (Myers and McCauley, 1985). The extroversion dimension describes outgoingness versus withdrawnness. Sensing and intuition are ways to experience the world in either a more down-to-earth, tangible fashion or through imagination and hunches. Judging and perceiving depict a preference for either orderliness and planning or flexibility and openness. Thinking and feeling describe an aptitude for objective and logical reasoning versus a preference for aesthetic and humanistic values. A study showed that undergraduates who were in the process of selecting courses for the next semester ranked information sources differently based on their Jungian personality type (Sims, 2002). The only ones who ranked friends and family as their primary information sources were those with an ESFP (extroverted sensing-feeling-perceiving) personality, while those who ranked their professor or adviser as their foremost information source had an ESTP (extroverted sensing-thinking-perceiving) personality. All other personality types preferred printed or online sources over personal ones (ibid.). The differences between the two outgoing types may be explained by the fact that ESTPs are more guided by cognition than emotion, while the opposite is true for ESFPs. ESTPs chose to ask authoritative persons for help in their decision process, namely their professor or adviser, while the ESFPs turned to their personal friends and family. Both sources were social, but the ESTPs’ decision may have been more rational given that their academic supervisors would have better formal experience to guide them. The ESFPs let their emotions guide, and turned to close personal friends for advice, perhaps since they felt more comfortable with them. A personal friend or family member may also know you and your interests on a deeper level, and thus give more emotional and moral support. Both personality types shared an outgoing nature, as well as a tendency to look to authorities for guidance, which may explain their inclination to turn foremost to human information sources in their decision process.

The extroverts’ talent and interest in social interaction are not only reflected in the way they search, but also influence the information content they are primarily interested in. When extroverts begin a new job, for instance, they often focus their attention mainly on social aspects of the work environment. When recently hired, people tend to be most curious about aspects of a new workplace that match their personal interests. A person who looks for a high salary is likely to try to find out more about financial benefits. A group-oriented person would try to figure out the social atmosphere at work (De Vos et al., 2005). As newcomers, extroverts are typically particularly interested in information regarding interpersonal relations among colleagues and feedback on their own performance, rather than striving to learn more about work tasks (Tidwell and Sias, 2005). Their priority is to get to know colleagues and participate in social activities that will help them build good collegial relationships. Rather than searching for information about duties or procedures, they are interested in discussing their own work performance and frequently ask their boss or their colleagues to evaluate it (Wanberg and Kammeyer-Mueller, 2000). One reason may be that extroverts are confident enough to dare to ask for feedback. Feedback seeking is also an interactive process in which extroverts thrive, rather than a pure information-seeking activity. As extroverts are skillful in making use of their social abilities, this may become a habitual problem-solving strategy for them (Matthews, 2008). They often want to find a solution in interaction with others, relying on the context and other people’s opinions. Introverts are generally more independent and analytical in their problem-solving, and reflect on theoretical and practical aspects in order to find a personal solution (McCaulley, 1987).

Flexibility and pragmatism

Typically, outgoing persons vigorously and actively look for information, but they are seldom very systematic (Heinström, 2003). They search for information in a spontaneous, flexible and arbitrary fashion instead of in a planned and structured way. They are furthermore impatient information seekers who want to find what they need as rapidly as possible, and feel frustrated at a standstill (Moreland, 1993). The typical search pattern of extroverts is similar to that of information entrepreneurs: scientists whose major information source was their personal contacts (Palmer, 1991a). Just like extroverts, the information entrepreneurs were flexible information seekers who did not use any particular search strategy.

In addition to their interpersonal, active and spontaneous searching, one distinctive trademark for extroverts is a practical, matter-of-fact approach to information seeking. Extroverts are down to earth rather than reflective in their character, and this colors their approach to information. They foremost turn to it when they need to solve a problem, rather than looking for material to ponder upon over an extended period of time. For instance, when they search for information online they make instrumental and goal-directed searches (Amiel and Sargent, 2004). Similarly, students with an activist learning style tend to seek information broadly and energetically, and practically apply what they find instead of analyzing and reflecting upon it (Palmer, 1991b). An extrovert is thus a reactive searcher who fiercely addresses a problem which needs to be solved. Extroverts for instance actively take charge when they need to make a career choice, and look for input that will help them reach a decision (Reed et al., 2004). Similarly, if extroverts end up unemployed they do not passively wait to come across a suitable job offer, but instead face up to the challenge and vigorously search for new work opportunities until they find something to their liking (Tokar et al., 1998). Extroverts are hence easily activated, responsive and self-reliant in their spirit (Stelmack and Rammsayer, 2008).

Having a practical approach to information seeking does not rule out an element of chance and imagination. It has been shown that extroverts often retrieve useful information incidentally (Heinström, 2006c). The first reason for this may simply be that extroverts search for information so vigorously. This exposes them to a multitude of information sources with potential for unexpected discoveries. But exposure to sources is not enough if the right attitude is missing. Here the extroverts’ spontaneous character and impulsive information seeking may come in handy. A very structured and goal-oriented searcher may overlook what the extroverts find.

Extroverts tend to be on a constant look-out for new impulses and stimulation, and easily bored in predictable and mundane routines. This makes them look for excitement and novelty when it comes to information seeking. Extroverts are therefore foremost interested in documents which bring new perspectives to the topic they are investigating (Heinström, 2003). Merely repeating the old and known is off-putting to them, as their interest in information often lies in the element of surprise and originality.

Sensation seeking

Sensation seeking may be thought of as an extreme form of extroversion. The similarities between the characteristics are grounded in a highly responsive BAS system, which in addition to extroversion has been linked to positive emotionality and sensation seeking (Pickering and Corr, 2008).

The trait of sensation seeking has been defined as a drive to seek out ‘varied, novel, complex and intense sensations, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience’ (Zuckerman, 1994: 27). One way to add complexity is information seeking. Additional detail and intriguing facts may diversify even a mundane situation. Sensation seekers are accordingly often attracted to information-rich environments. They tend to be active information seekers, often with the goal of expanding and developing experiences. For instance, when high sensation seekers meet a new person, they tend to investigate more about the background and characteristics of the person than low sensation seekers would do. High sensation seekers may not be content with a first impression or a superficial understanding of a person, but instead desire to find out as many interesting and unusual facts as possible in order to develop a more stimulating and complex impression (Henderson et al., 2006). Similarly, extroverts are particularly interested in interpersonal information even in contexts where others may prefer other kinds of input, such as a work environment (Tidwell and Sias, 2005).

Our most information-rich environment today is the internet. High sensation seekers tend to be active web surfers, eager to explore new topics. For them the internet may feel like a ‘high-tech adventure’ which provides them with the stimuli they crave. The online environment may in this respect feed their need for adventure and excitement (Lu et al., 2006). At times their surfing may become exaggerated, however, and consume too much time. High sensation seekers have been found to be more susceptible to internet dependency than low sensation seekers (Lin and Tsai, 2002).

The appeal of a site is likely to have an impact on which webpages are chosen, and thereby what information content is encountered. Sensation seeking may also influence preferences in website design. Just as sensation seekers overall have a high need for stimulation and complexity in their daily life, they often prefer complex visual designs and intricate representations of information. In contrast, low sensation seekers often prefer simple designs (Martin et al., 2005). We can compare this liking to the extroverts’ fondness for visual design as compared to introverts’ preference for simple textual design (Gaff, 1994).

Reflective information interaction

The strength of introverts lies in their dynamic inner world and their gift for reflection and analysis. Introverts tend to be hardworking, intellectual, creative and thoughtful. Many PhDs, for instance, tend to be introverts. Introverts are hence something of natural researchers. This makes them thrive in academic disciplines which require much solitary work. Humanist scholars, for instance, often work alone on projects and acquire knowledge through reading (De Fruyt and Mervielde, 1996; Lapan et al., 1996; Rosenberg and Öhman, 1999). Another reason why introverts have a specific aptitude for scholarly work is their analytical capacities (Matthews et al., 2003). This skill may also facilitate their critical information judgment (Heinström, 2002). In contrast to extroverts’ social information seeking, introverts prefer to search for information in textual sources such as books, or on the internet. There is also a difference in the use of the retrieved information, in that introverts tend to be more thoughtful and reflective while extroverts focus on practical applications. If extroverts commonly thrive in professions where they benefit from their social skills, tolerance of stress and flexible, spontaneous thinking, introverts excel in careers where they can make the most of their analytical and critical abilities (Matthews, 2008).

Although introverts often are highly skilled, they may at times suffer from low self-confidence. Shy persons, for instance, commonly blame themselves for negative experiences, have low expectancies of social or academic success and have a selective memory for negative personal experiences (Cheek et al., 1986; Phillips and Bruch, 1988). They frequently feel inferior, and as a consequence they are seldom assertive. All of this, at times, makes them confused and insecure when they need to make important decisions. This has been shown for instance in a career choice context, where shy students often tended to seek less career-related information and be more indecisive than their more confident counterparts (Phillips and Bruch, ibid.). Self-confidence has in many contexts proved influential on performance, for instance in relation to information seeking (see Chapter 10). For this reason, it is important that introverts strengthen their confidence and learn to appreciate themselves more, even in a society that often favors outgoingness. In addition, introverts have many strengths, at times hidden even from themselves, that they have every reason to be proud of, such as, among others, their reflective and independent approach to life.

Many aspects influence the process of looking for, finding and using information. Not only is information content important when one information piece is chosen over another; presentation and format are also relevant. One of the milieux where this is evident is on the internet. Personality traits may for instance influence preference for the way in which information is presented. In general graphic interfaces are chosen over character-based ones, but this does not necessarily hold true for everyone. It has been shown that those who favor character interfaces are often introverts (Gaff, 1994). One explanation may be that introverts prefer environments with few stimuli which do not pressure them to divide their attention. A colorful graphic interface may thus feel stressful and demanding for them. Outgoing persons, on the other hand, in general have a higher need for outer stimulation, and may therefore prefer more complex designs. Preferences like these are not trivial in an information-seeking context, as the first visual impression of a website may influence the likelihood of visiting the page. Certain webpages which match the surfer’s liking may thus be filtered through and prioritized. As a consequence these websites are visited and the information content they contain is consulted over other possible sites with different layouts (ibid.).