“Words, words! They’re all we have to go on!”

In the post below I fell into the same trap many psychologists and writers do when talking about behaviour. I describe people as being introverted and extroverted.  In reality, there is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert. Introversion is not a property, it is an activity- not something you are, but something you do.

Calling someone an “introvert” is simply short-hand for “someone who prefers introverting to extroverting”. Despite being aware of this, the short hand can tempt us to think in misleading ways. Even when qualifying statements about personality traits, writers use go-to phrases such as “tend to” or “more often than not”. This is equally misleading.

To see why, consider the following thought experiment. Sally is a professional biker who spends more time biking than not biking .For the sake of argument, I will assume that the only way Sally can move her bike is by pushing on the pedals, and ignore situations in which this is not the case e.g. riding downhill.

These two sentences are intended to have the same meaning:

  1. Sally is a bike rider; she often pushes on the pedals to move her bike.
  2. Sally often rides her bike. When Sally is riding her bike she pushes on the pedals to move it.

The first statement is confusing: We know that Sally is a bike-rider and we know that pedals are necessary to move the bike. So why the “often”?  Because Sally isn’t always on her bike.  She also eats, sleeps, talks with friends etc. She is on her bike often, and when she is on her bike she is pushing pedals, ergo she is often pushing pedals. Complicated, no? The second statement expresses the same idea far more clearly and logically because it doesn’t add the confusion of ascribing the property “bike-rider” to Sally. It (correctly) refers to bike-riding as an activity that she often engages in.

We see a similar pattern when describing cognitive functions-which are mental activities-as though they were properties of the person in question.

Now compare the following two sentences:

  1. Tom is an introvert; he tends focus more on his internal world than the external world.
  2. Tom often introverts. When Tom is introverting he focuses on his internal world.

In this case sentence one does not jar as much as it did in Sally’s case because we are used to talking about character traits as though they are properties rather than activities. But on closer analysis this approach falls apart. It is a necessary feature of introversion that more focus is placed on the internal world. So if Tom only “tends to” focus more on his internal world, and Tom is an introvert, what happens all those times that he is not focusing on his internal world? Is he taking a break from being Tom?

Of course not. And of course no-one focuses internally or externally a hundred percent of the time. Introverting is something Tom tends to do. So if there are times when Tom is more externally focused (like when he is at a party) he is just like Sally taking a day-off from bike training. He is not doing his preferred activity but he remains the same person, and the activity remains the same activity.

If we treat character traits as properties we cannot properly deal with the circumstantial nature of human behaviour. We end up committing ourselves to the conclusion that Tom is not Tom while he’s extroverting, or that introversion doesn’t mean focus on the internal world (which it must do, because that is how it is defined.)

Critics may accuse me of being harsh. Calling Sally a “bike-rider” or Tom an “introvert” in common parlance only means that enjoying doing these activities is part of who they are. Of course they don’t stop being themselves just because they stop for a second. That’s taking it to an unreasonable extreme. Well, maybe. But why not opt for the more accurate form of expression? I hope I’ve shown that, at least in the case of Tom, the change of emphasis would be worth our while.


About Coral Waters

"To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is." -Einstein
This entry was posted in Philosophy., Psychology, Rants. and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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