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Acting Like an Extrovert Has Benefits But Not for Introverts

A group of amateur figure skaters enjoying a day at a frozen lake together.

For decades, personality psychologists have noticed a striking, consistent pattern: extroverts are happier more of the time than introverts. For anyone interested in promoting wellbeing, this has raised the question of whether it might be beneficial to encourage people to act more extroverted. Evidence to date has suggested it might.

For example, regardless of their usual disposition, people tend to report feeling happier and more authentic whenever they are behaving more like an extrovert (that is, more sociable, active and assertive). That’s a mere correlation that could be interpreted in different ways. But lab studies have similarly found that prompting people, including introverts, to act more like an extrovert makes them feel happier and truer to themselves.

Before we all start doing our best extrovert impressions in pursuit of greater happiness, though, a team of researchers led by the psychologist Rowan Jacques-Hamilton at the University of Melbourne urge caution, writing in a paper at PsyArXiv: ‘Until we have a well-rounded understanding of both the positive and negative consequences of extroverted behaviour, advocating any real-world applications of acting extroverted could be premature and potentially hazardous.’

To get to the bottom of things, the team conducted the first ever randomised controlled trial of an ‘act more extroverted’ intervention but, unlike previous research, they looked beyond the lab at the positive and negative effects on people’s feelings in daily life.

Dozens of participants were allocated at random to either the ‘act like an extrovert’ condition or to an ‘act unassuming, sensitive, calm and modest’ control condition; the idea was that this control condition would encourage the adoption of behaviours representative of several of the other main personality traits, such as agreeableness and emotional stability.

There was also a second control group that completed some of the same measures but did not follow any instructions to change their behaviour from what it naturally was.

The true aims of the study were concealed from the participants and they didn’t know about the conditions they weren’t in. For the extrovert and first control groups, their challenge was to follow the behavioural instructions they’d been given for seven days straight whenever interacting with others in their daily lives (though not if doing so would be inappropriate for the situation they were in).

The participants completed baseline and follow-up surveys about their feelings and behaviour. Through the seven-day period of the study they also answered in-the-moment psychological surveys six times a day whenever prompted by their smartphones. Their phones also gave them periodic reminders to alter their behaviour according to the experimental group they were in.

For the average participant, being in the ‘act like an extrovert’ condition was associated with more positive emotions (excited, lively and enthusiastic) than those reported in the calmer control group – both in the moment, and in retrospect, when looking back on the week. Compared with the second control condition, in which participants behaved naturally, benefit from extroverted behaviour was seen only retrospectively. On average, participants in the ‘act extroverted’ condition also felt greater momentary and retrospective authenticity. These benefits came without any adverse effects in terms of levels of tiredness or experience of negative emotion.

‘Thus,’ write the researchers, ‘the main effects of the intervention were wholly positive, and no costs of extroverted behaviour were detected for the average participant.’ The advantages were to a large extent mediated by participants acting more extroverted more often – though, interestingly, not by being in more social situations: ie, by changing the quality of their social interactions, not the quantity of them.

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But the story does not end there, because the researchers also looked specifically at the introverts in their sample to see whether the apparently cost-free positive benefits of the ‘act extroverted’ intervention also manifested for them. Although previous research has suggested that both introverts and extroverts alike benefit just the same from acting more extroverted, this was not the case here.

First and unsurprisingly, introverts did not succeed in increasing their extroverted behaviour as much as other participants. And while the introverts in the ‘act like an extrovert’ condition did enjoy momentary gains in positive emotion, they did not report this benefit in retrospect at the end of the study. Unlike extroverts, they also did not show momentary gains in authenticity, and in retrospect they reported lower authenticity. The ‘act extroverted’ intervention also appeared to increase introverts’ retrospective fatigue levels and experience of negative emotions.

Jacques-Hamilton and his team said that these were perhaps their most important findings – ‘dispositional introverts may reap fewer wellbeing benefits, and perhaps even incur some wellbeing costs, from acting more extroverted’. They also made an important point that strong introverts might not desire to experience positive emotions as frequently as extroverts.

However, the idea that introverts could gain from learning to be more extroverted, more often, is not dead. Not only because this is just one study and more research is needed, but also because those acting more extroverted did, after all, still report more positive emotions in the moment than the control group asked to maintain calm. This group’s failure to report more pleasure in retrospect could, after all, reflect a memory bias – perhaps mirroring earlier research, which showed that introverts do not expect that acting extroverted would make them feel good.

Also consider this: the one-size-fits-all extroversion intervention provided little guidance on how exactly to achieve the aim of acting more extroverted. It’s possible that a less intense version, together with support and guidance to make any behavioural changes become habitual (and therefore less effortful), could help even strong introverts enjoy the benefits of acting more extroverted. ‘By allowing more freedom to return to an introverted “restorative niche”, a less intensive intervention might also result in fewer costs to negative affect, authenticity and tiredness,’ the researchers added.

By: Christian Jarrett

Christian Jarrett is a senior editor at Aeon, working on the forthcoming Psyche website that will take a multidisciplinary approach to the age-old question of how to live. A cognitive neuroscientist by training, his writing has appeared in BBC Future, WIRED and New York Magazine, among others. His books include The Rough Guide to Psychology (2011) and Great Myths of the Brain (2014). His next, on personality change, will be published in 2021.

Originally published in association with The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, an Aeon Partner.

Source: Acting Like an Extrovert Has Benefits, but Not for Introverts – Aeon – Pocket

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Memory & Attention Difficulties are Often Part of a Normal Life

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From young adults to people in their 60s, everyday functioning in today’s world can place high demands on our attention and memory skills.

Memory lapses such as forgetting an appointment, losing our keys, forgetting a distant relative’s name or not remembering why you opened the fridge can leave us believing our thinking skills are impaired.

But you might be too hard on yourself. Tiredness, stress and worry, and feeling down or depressed are all common reasons adults experience attention and memory difficulties.


Read more: What is ‘cognitive reserve’? How we can protect our brains from memory loss and dementia


Attention and memory systems

Attention and memory skills are closely connected. Whether we can learn and remember something partly depends on our ability to concentrate on the information at the time.

It also depends on our ability to focus our attention on retrieving that information when it’s being recalled at a later time.

This attention system, which is so important for successful memory function, has a limited capacity – we can only make sense of, and learn, a limited amount of information in any given moment.

Being able to learn, and later successfully remember something, also depends on our memory system, which stores the information.

Changes in attention and memory skills

In people who are ageing normally, both attention and memory systems gradually decline. This decline starts in our early 20s and continues slowly until our 60s, when it tends to speed up.

During normal ageing, the number of connections between brain cells slowly reduce and some areas of the brain progressively work less efficiently. These changes particularly occur in the areas of the brain that are important for memory and attention systems.

This normal ageing decline is different from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which cause progressive changes in thinking skills, emotions and behaviour that are not typical of the normal ageing process. Dementia comes from a group of diseases that affect brain tissue and cause abnormal changes in the way the brain works.


Read more: Why people with dementia don’t all behave the same


If you’re concerned your memory difficulties may be a symptom of dementia, talk to your GP, who can refer you to a specialist, if needed, to determine whether these changes are due to normal ageing, dementia or some other cause.

If you experience persistent changes in your thinking skills, which are clearly greater than your friends and acquaintances who are of a similar age and in similar life circumstances, see your GP.

Normal attention and memory difficulties

Broadly, there are two main reasons healthy adults experience difficulties with their memory and/or attention: highly demanding lives and normal age-related changes.

A person can be consistently using their attention and memory skills at high levels without sufficient mental relaxation time and/or sleep to keep their brain working at its best.

Young adults who are working, studying and then consistently using attention-demanding devices as “relaxation” techniques, such as computer games and social media interaction, fall into this group.

Adults juggling the demands of work or study, family and social requirements also fall into this group.

Most adults need around seven to nine hours of sleep per night for their brain to work at its best, with older adults needing seven to eight hours.

Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

The second common reason is a combination of ageing-related brain changes and highly demanding work requirements.

For people in jobs that place a high load on thinking skills, the thinking changes that occur with normal ageing can become noticeable at some point around 55 to 70 years of age. It’s around this time age-related changes in the ability to carry out complex thinking tasks become large enough to be noticeable. People who are retired or don’t have the same mentally demanding jobs generally experience the same changes, but may not notice them as much.

This is also the age many people become more aware of the potential risk of dementia. Consequently, these normal changes can result in high levels of stress and concern, which can result in a person experiencing even greater difficulties day to day.

Emotional distress can take its toll

Feeling down and sad can affect memory and concentration. When a person is feeling worried and/or down regularly, they may become consumed by their thoughts.

It’s important to recognise how you’re feeling, to make changes or seek help if needed. But thinking a lot about how you’re feeling can also take a person’s attention away from the task at hand and make it difficult for them to concentrate on what is happening, or remember it clearly in the future.

So feeling worried or down can make it seem there is something wrong with their memory and concentration.

Boosting your attention and memory skills

There are a number of things that can be done to help your day-to-day memory and attention skills.

First, it’s important to properly rest your mind on a regular basis. This involves routinely doing something you enjoy that doesn’t demand high levels of attention or memory, such as exercising, reading for pleasure, walking the dog, listening to music, relaxed socialising with friends, and so on.

Playing computer games, or having a lengthy and focused session on social media, requires high levels of attention and other thinking skills, so these are not good mental relaxation techniques when you are already mentally tired.


Read more: Why two people see the same thing but have different memories


It’s also important to get enough sleep, so you are not consistently tired – undertaking exercise on a regular basis often helps with getting good quality sleep, as does keeping alcohol consumption within recommended limits.

Looking after your mental health is also important. Noticing how you are feeling and getting support (social and/or professional) during longer periods of high stress or lowered mood will help ensure these things are not affecting your memory or concentration.

Finally, be fair to yourself if you notice difficulties with your thinking. Are the changes you notice any different to those of other people your own age and in similar circumstances, or are you comparing yourself to someone younger or with less demands in their life?

If you have ongoing concerns about your attention and memory, speak with your GP, who can refer you to a specialist, such as a clinical neuropsychologist, if needed.

Senior Lecturer in Clinical Neuropsychology, University of Melbourne

 

Source: Memory and attention difficulties are often part of a normal life

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