The Caricature Of An Extravert

Black and white photo of a laughing girl on playground
“You Spin Me Right ‘Round” by Sean Molin(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“The model of mental health depicted by positive psychology turns out to be little more than a caricature of an extravert – a bland, shallow, goal-driven careerist whose positive attitudes, certainties and ‘high self-esteem’ mask the fact that he lacks the very qualities that would enable him to attain a degree of true self -knowledge or wisdom, and to really grow as a human being”.

Miller (2008 p.606)


Alistair Miller’s insipid description of the outcomes of positive psychology as the “caricature of an extravert ” (2008), seeks to refute positive psychology’s founder, Martin Seligman’s writings, encapsulated in his early books Authentic Happiness (2002) and Learned Optimism (2006).  Miller’s definition of the quintessential, positive-psychologically formed individual as an extravert, however, is broken into three points that surround a common fallacy regarding the definition of extraversion; an aspect of personality studied in depth by the field of personality psychology (Reevy, 2010). Firstly, he argues that the paragon of positive psychology is an extravert.  He then attributes characteristics such as goal-drivenness and positive attitude (factors in what we now understand to be psychological growth) (Alexandrova, 2005; Carr, 2011; Fredrickson, B, 2009) to extraversion. Lastly, he claims that extraverts lack “the very qualities that would enable him… to really grow as a human being.” This essay will argue firstly that attributes such as a positive attitude and goal-drivenness; and outcomes of these attributes (ie psychological growth) are related to neither introversion or extraversion specifically. Secondly, that utilising techniques such as the Broaden-and-Build Theory (Fredrickson, 2004) and Hope Therapy (Snyder, 2000) which encapsulate skills including goal-driven behaviour and positive attitude, result in the psychological growth that is the ultimate goal of the positive psychology movement.  By  highlighting the relevant literature it will become clear that ultimate student of positive psychology is one which is dedicated to psychological and physical growth based upon strength and virtue (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and is neither a representation of extraversion or introversion.

Gretchen Reevy (2010) in the Encyclopedia of Emotion (Volume 1) defines extraversion as a personality trait. Miller (2008) however, in correlating extraversion with a personality profile, grabs at a label that is often understood as an either-or  characteristic and as such, reinforces a common misnomer that extraverts represent at least half of the general population. In doing so, Miller has made a fallacious leap in logic, largely in opposition to a mounting body of research that asserts that most people are instead ‘ambiverts ’ ie neither introverts nor extraverts but rather, both. (Jung, 1960/1921; Costa & McCrae, 2002; Grant, 2013). It is widely understood that these two-thirds of the population fall in the middle of the extraversion-introversion continuum. In otherwords, they fall in the centre of the bell-curve (Reevy, 2010; Costa & McCrae, 2002). One of the focuses of positive psychology has been to shift the research from pathology and weakness, where it has been focused for over 60 years (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) to research that applies to the population at large. If one in five people will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime (ABS, 2007), then it follows that the other four in five people represent a large portion of focus of positive psychology research . Resultantly, 68% of this population are neither extraverts or introverts but are rather labelled ambiverts (Costa & McCrae, 2002). Therefore, if positive psychology research was to be applied to the non-pathological general population, it could not be argued that the product of positive psychology is extraversion, as we know that statistically, extraverts only represent around 16% of the population.

Accordingly, if looking at extraversion from the understanding that it is certainly a personality trait, it is important  also to acknowledge that personality traits are primarily fixed (Costa & McRae, 2002). While age and individual circumstances may point to predictable changes over a lifetime, thus allowing for psychological growth, one cannot grow to be an extravert and indeed, this is not the aim of positive psychology. It is, instead, to develop strengths and virtues (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The development of resilience, positive thinking, goal-drivenness, optimism and hope may result in the “caricature” (Miller, 2008) of a more extraverted expression. Nonetheless, the notion that this extraversion-introversion personality trait is static is crucial for further understanding. The appearance of extraversion does not always indicate a personality trait where the principles of positive psychology research are applied, but rather a shift in mindset. While Miller (2008) attributes ideas such as positive attitudes and goal-centred behaviour to extraversion, they are more correctly indicators of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2002) strengths and virtues and are also evidence of the psychological growth that Miller claims his account of an extravert cannot obtain.

In defining his extravert as having a positive attitude and one who is prone to goal-setting, Miller (2008) argues that this type of individual is incapable of real growth. Once again, Miller falls victim to common misconceptions about extraversion. What he is describing is indeed a very dominant figure in the American business world (Cain, 2010) but it is interesting to note that Reevy (2010) defines extraversion as “a collection of attributes that includes positive emotion, sociability activity and assertiveness, excitement seeking and sometimes impulsiveness” (p. 40). While Reevy (2010) does indicate that the extraversion can be characterised by the dominance of positive emotional experience, this is only part of the extraversion picture. It also points to the need to further define for extraversion. Jung, in the 1920s. was the first to  explore the ideas of extraversion and introversion and suggested that they should be  considered in terms of “where one directs his energy (toward the self or toward an external object)” (Reevy, 2010, p. 44). If we understand Reevy’s (2010) definition of the extraverted personality trait as defining characteristics  and turn to Jung to designate the underlying drive of extraverts and introverts, it can then be suggested that positive emotion can be conceptualised as an external object (Jung,1960/1921). It is something beyond the individual, that the extravert looks to in drawing energy from. If external positive emotion is the natural default for extraverts, the Miller’s (2008) argument can be given a small amount of credence. And yet it is important to understand that positive attitude and positive emotion are not merely the domain of the extravert.

While positive emotion does not necessarily indicate positive attitude, Fredrickson (2009) indicates through her research that a positive attitude has a direct correlation with the creation of positive emotions. She argues that positive thinking styles allow people to “tap into” positive emotions and that people who exhibit these types of thinking styles are more highly correlated with resilience than those without (Fredrickson, 2009). Therein, bu establishing this fact, it can be argued that people  who have positive attitudes are more likely to experience positive emotions. It is , however, an unsubstantiated step to therefore say that because people with positive attitudes are more likely to experience positive emotions, that they are they are therefore extraverts. In one        experimental study, it was found that a positive affect state could be induced in laboratory trials regardless of the where subjects fell within the extraversion-introversion personality trait (Roesch, 1999). According to Fredrickson’s (2004) Broaden-and-Build model, positive emotions are “linked to urges to approach or continue” (p. 219). In other words, the feeling of joy creates urges to continue to experience this emotional state whereas the feeling of fear creates urges to escape (p. 218).

It follows then, that if positive attitudes or thinking allow people to access positive emotions such as love, joy, and excitement, which then triggers urges to continue in behaviour which extends these emotions, that fostering a positive attitude holds great potential for personal growth. For people that are inherently negative in their thought processes and attitudes, especially when considering depression and anxiety-related disorders, fostering a positive attitude holds immense opportunity for shifting pervasive negative moods, even if only periodically in initial phases. It holds therefore that negative thinking, regardless of personality trait, can be improved greatly by mimicking what Miller (2008) identifies as extraverted behaviour.

Carr (2011) argues that goal-setting is a central ingredient in both optimism and hope and that fostering the development of such skills can contribute to the further expansion of attributes which are key ingredients for psychological growth. Carr (2011) points out that “optimism is related to the ability to delay gratification and to forgo short-term gains in order to achieve long-term goals” (p. 92) and that “hope is strongest when it entails valued goals that there is an intermediate probability of attaining due to challenging but not insurmountable obstacles” (p.96). Goal-setting, therefore , is inherent in both hope and optimism, as well as being a central skill that can be developed and shaped. Goal-setting is not a positive emotion  or even an underlying drive. It is a skill that can be applied regardless of trait definition. Extraverts are no more likely to set goals than introverts . Carr (2011) points out that “by the end of the first year of life, object constancy and cause and effect schemas allow infants to have anticipatory thoughts about pathways to goals” (p. 98) and that “the type of role modelling offered by parents, and the degree to which parents encourage and reward optimism” (p. 92) indicates the propensity an individual will have for goal-driven optimism. This is also known as the development of dispositional optimism (Carver & Scheier, 2014). These developmental and environmental insights are available for all individuals across one’s lifespan  and rely on exposure and opportunity, not trait structure.

Medlin and Green (2009) applied the hypothesis that formulating goals fostered the development of optimism in their research study of 426 full and part-time employees and found that not only did goal-setting enhance employee performance, but that it also raised optimism in the workplace. Rasmussen, Wrosch, Scheier and Carver (2006) argue that self-regulation of goals results in the nurturing of optimism. Which, in turn, ultimately leads to better outcomes in health-related circumstances such as pre- and post-operative surgery measures of anxiety and quality of life for patients with both heart disease and cancer . These studies specify that goal-setting is essential to the development of optimism and hope as well as central to improved performance and outcomes. This research indicates that the hope-filled optimist has huge potential for growth. Snyder (2000) has even developed a therapeutic approach that has been named Hope Therapy which “aims to help clients formulate clear goals; produce numerous pathways to these; motivate themselves to pursue their goals; and reframe obstacles as challenges to be overcome”  (Carr, 2011 p. 100). Since optimism is tied to neither extraversion or introversion, it can be argued that the development of optimism and the nurturing of hope can be applied to a cross-section of society, resulting in the fostering personal and psychological progress, regardless of where individuals draw their energy from (Jung 1960/1921).

Miller (2008) argues that the outcomes of applied psychology result in the production of the caricature of an extravert. Accordingly, this argument is itself as shallow and bland as his suggested extravert. While applying some techniques of positive psychology can result in the appearance of an extraverted personality, this in no way indicates that these people are extraverts. This essay has argued that characteristics such as positive attitudes and goal-drivenness are neither purely the domain of extraversion nor introversion;  that the application of theories such as Fredrickson’s (2005) Broaden-and-Build theory and Snyder’s (2000) Hope Therapy foster psychological growth and this growth is not limited to the profile of an introvert or an extravert. And that the outcomes of the applications of positive psychology research on such attributes as hope and optimism, in turn , enhance physical and psychological well-being  which further enhance psychological growth.  While Miller’s caricature of a positive psychology application is a depiction of an extravert incapable of growth, the reality is that applying the results of the research conducted in positive psychology over the past two decades, we find rich and complex individuals throughout the introversion-extraversion continuum who are dedicated to developing strength and virtue (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) regardless of trait orientation.




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