Home » Transcript: Brian Little on Confessions of a Passionate Introvert at TEDxOxbridge

Transcript: Brian Little on Confessions of a Passionate Introvert at TEDxOxbridge

Brian Little

Dr. Brian Little is an internationally acclaimed scholar and speaker in the field of personality and motivational psychology. Here is the full transcript of Dr. Little’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Confessions of a Passionate Introvert’ at TEDxOxbridge Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Confessions of a passionate introvert by Brian Little at TEDxOxbridge


Good morning. What an intriguing group of individuals you are! To a psychologist.

I’ve had the opportunity, in the last 46 minutes, to listen in on some of your conversations — inadvertently, of course — and to observe you interacting with each other, and I think it’s fair to say already that there are 19 people in this audience, at this moment, showing psychological symptoms I’d like to discuss this morning. And I thought you might like to know who you are.

But instead of pointing at you, which would be gratuitous and intrusive, I thought what I would do is give you a simple fact. Did you know that it is virtually impossible for adults to lick the outside of their own elbows? And did you know — that how you responded and acted upon that piece of information probably gives us a piece of information about your personality? For example, some of you have already tried to lick your elbows. And I’m afraid some of you may have dislocated something in the process. Some of you have demurred. Some of you have strongly demurred. And some of you have not only tried to lick your own elbow; you’ve successfully licked the elbow of the person sitting next to you.

What gives rise to these wonderful differences in personality? That’s what we study in our field with personality psychology, or, more broadly considered, personality science. And within that field, one very influential stream of thought suggests that these arise out of big five traits. And the big five traits that have been discovered in research over the last couple of decades, can be thought of in terms of an acronym, OCEAN, where O stands for Openness, C for Conscientiousness, E for Extroversion, A for Agreeableness and N for Neuroticism. And I’m not going to focus upon neuroticism. So, don’t worry. I am going to focus, however, upon extroversion. This has received a great deal of buzz in the last couple of years. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Susan Cain’s TED Talk and with her book ‘Quiet’.

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And the first confession I wish to make today is that, in Chapter 7 of Cain’s book, Quiet, she alludes to this strange little Canadian professor, who had lectured at Harvard, who was seen by his students as extremely extroverted, but, in fact, was known to hide from them in the men’s room, after lectures. And I must confess that his name was incredibly, serendipitously, the same as mine, Brian Little.

Let me explain a little bit about the dimension of extroversion. And to do that, I’m just going to take advantage of one diagram that I will animate and ask you a question about, in a minute. When we became mammals, we developed a part of the brain known as the neocortex – ‘neo’ means new and ‘cortex’ means roof. So, the neocortex is the new roof of the brain, accreted to, or added on to the paleocortex, or the old roof of the brain.

And one of the functions of the neocortex is to allow us to think before acting, to prognosticate before engaging in mere behavior. But, in order for the neocortex to function properly, it needs to be aroused or activated up to an optimal level of arousal. Now, too high a level of arousal means that you’re just revving too high. And it’s dysfunctional in terms of carrying out our everyday projects and tasks. In fact, I might even be able to highlight this here. Up here is not really the best place to be, in terms of your arousal level. Nor is down there. Here, you’re soaring unduly. Here, you’re at risk for snoring. You’re under the optimal level.

Now, let me ask you: who do you think is most at risk in this audience, in the Cambridge Union, at this moment, of falling asleep? It may surprise you to know that it is, in fact, the extroverts, because, chronically, extroverts are under the optimal level of arousal necessary to carry out their tasks and projects effectively. And, consequently, they need to extrovert themselves, they need to seek stimulation, they need to engage with people. And that is why they will act the way they do, and we can spot it in their everyday behavior. I’ll give you some examples in a moment.

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Introverts, contrastingly, are over that optimal level of arousal. They need to get their stimulation level down, less stimulating, in order to carry out their tasks effectively. And there is an optimal level of arousal right in between. So, some of you who are ambiverts will be more or less at that optimal level. Let me give you some very practical examples. I want you to imagine a car containing one extrovert and one introvert, driving to the Cambridge Union. Typically, it’s the extrovert who’s driving, even if it’s the introvert’s car. And the reason is, to get here, you get here much more quickly with an extrovert driving. They actually accrue a larger number of traffic tickets. And they need stimulation. So, when they’re driving, you can spot them on the motorway. They move around a lot, they look at other extroverts, driving introverts away from Cambridge, and they do not have a smartphone. Extroverts have three smartphones! And you can see them. They’re talking, they’re answering a text message they just sent themselves, and, generally, they act in such a way as to get their level of stimulation up, whereas the introverts sitting next to them are hoping grimly to get to Cambridge in one piece.

Now, that’s not a zero-sum game. What is a zero-sum game, though, is a negotiation of the radio on the car. There’s a probabilistic drift, as we call it, a tendency only, for extroverts, when they get in the car, to turn the radio up to about 110 decibels. This is near the pain threshold. So, you’ll have 110 decibels of Yo-Yo Ma or Miley Cyrus booming through the sound system, or perhaps a mash of the two with Miley twerking the cello. And that’s great for the extroverts, because it gets them up to where they can carry out their driving and their conversational task effectively. The introverts, not so much. So, you see the seeds of conflict here.

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