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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’.

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.

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.

Now, let me just give you another example. We interact in different ways. Extroverts, to be comfortable in interaction, like to stand close, like to have a lot of body contact, a lot of gaze or mutual gaze. We’ve found in some research that extroverts use more diminutive names, when they meet somebody. The person you’re meeting is Charles; it rapidly becomes Charlie, and then Chuck, and then Chuckles-baby, whereas for introverts it remains Charles, until you’re given a pass to a more intimate level. The interactions between them can therefore be a little bit strained. Also, in effect, it can give rise to a vector resolution problem, because the extrovert, to be polite, moves forward; the introvert, to be polite, moves backwards. And they end up, again, at one of these impasses caused by differences in personality. We speak differently.

And now I have to betray something to you. This is a confession. I am, as my students know — after I tell them — an extreme introvert. Off the bottom of the scale. And many of you are like me. We act out of character. We become passionate about projects that really matter to us, which takes us out of our basic personality styles.

Let me give you an example of communication. You need to know that to appreciate this. I had a consulting contract I shared with a colleague, who was as different from me as two people can be. First, his name is Tom, and mine isn’t. Secondly, he is 6 foot 5, and I have a tendency not to be. And thirdly, he’s a card-carrying extrovert; I’m certifiably introverted. You need to know that extroverts prefer black and white, concrete, simple language. Introverts prefer parenthetical, contextually complex, contingent, weasel-worded sentences. More or less… as it were. When we communicate, we have problems. For example, this particular project that we’re involved in had seconded to it a person from a finance department. I’ll call him Michael, because that was his name. And Michael just about brought the whole thing to a crashing halt. And the person who seconded him asked Tom and me, both, what we thought of Michael. And Tom responded in classic “extropertise” — I’ll tell you what he said in a minute — and then they said to me: “Brian, what do you think of Michael?” This is how we sound to extroverted ears.

And so, I said, “Well, Michael has a tendency, at times, of behaving in a way that some of us might see as, perhaps, more assertive than is normally called for.”

Tom just rolled his eyes and said, “Brian, that’s what I said! He’s an asshole!”

Now, as an introvert, I might gently allude to certain “assholic” qualities in this man’s behavior, but I’m not going to lunge really “a-word”. But an extrovert says if he walks like one, if he talks like one, I call him one, and we end up passing each other in the night. And we must. We must.

Is this all we are, then? Are we simply a group of fixed traits? I don’t think so. I’d like to invoke what I call free traits as explanations. Why do we act out of character? Free traits are when you invoke a social script to advance a core project in your life that means the world to you. For example, I am passionate about professing. I love my students, I love my subject and I can’t wait to tell them about what is exciting me. But it means that, in order to convey that, I act extrovertedly in my lectures. I don’t have to, but it’s entrained to the project, acting like this. I can’t wait to convey information to you. Can you do that for a period of time? Of course you can. It’s called professionalism. It’s also called love. You can act out of character. I’m a pseudo-extrovert. You may have acted out of character for some years in your life. You may be a naturally extroverted person, but you have acted more introvertedly for years, because you love Michael. Can we do this? Can we protractedly act out of character for a long period of time, without incurring costs? I don’t think we can. I think there are limits to our capacity to act out of character. And I want to give you a couple — well, I’ll give you one example in particular, and a couple of allusions to it.

Imagine a mom at a birthday party. And, at her birthday party, her core project is to give an awesome party for her daughter. And so, she acts extrovertedly when they’re playing “pin-the-tail on the mommy”, and she acts in such a way, as to get progress on the project of putting on an awesome party for Melinda. But, after the party’s over, she’s likely to repair to what I call a restorative niche, where she can become under-aroused, get that level of arousal down a bit. Whereas a true extrovert at her daughter’s birthday party, when the parents come to pick up the child, they have another party in the kitchen. And that’s how these individual differences become more complex than simple types of people.

Relatively fixed traits and free traits intermingle to make us more complex than I think we often regard ourselves as being. One example: I used to go down to talk to a group of senior military officers about the delights of human personality. And I would, in doing this, give them a number of topics. One seemed to be of particular interest to them which was this, which went to the whole business of arousal, the extroverted arousal, the need for stimulation and so on. And it has to do with sexual intercourse. So, I think if we could keep this screen from children in the audience or from those watching on video — I shall tell you some answers to the question: how frequently do males and females of introverted and extroverted orientation engage in the act? So how many times, per minute — sorry, that’s the rats study, sorry. How many times per month do introverted males engage in the act? Three. Extroverted males? More or less? More. Yes, by quite a bit.

Now, for any introverted males here, could I just point out that we also know a lot about what we call quality-quantity trade-off? No more need be said on that. Introverted women, 3.1; extroverted women — frankly speaking, as an introverted male, they are heroic. 7.5. They not only handle all the male extroverts. They pick up a few introverts as well.

So, I was telling them about this, and at that point, the military officers wanted me to go the officers’ mess. But I would have been a mess if I’d gone, because I’m overloaded, all of those eyes looking at me. And so, I would ask if I could beg off and walk by the river that ran by the campus. And I would do that, each time I went down, and that worked out very well. But the campus moved and the river stayed where it was. So, I had to find another restorative niche for myself, and there’s one 62 paces from this stage, which I will avail myself of in a few moments. And it is the men’s room. The loo. The john. The can. Whatever you wish to label it.

And I remember one day in particular — oh, this is a picture of it, right here. You’re looking down, it’s a plan view. At the top are the cubicles. Oh, here. At the top are the cubicles. On the side are the urinals. It was a busy urinal day. Lots of extroverts. I went where any self-respecting introvert would go, just as far away as possible, and began to lower my level of arousal. But we’re always alert to the sounds of encroaching, real extroverts. Extrovert alert! Extrovert alert! They have a way of walking and humming that is discernible.

So, my heart’s going, “bum-bum-bum”. And I hear his feet moving toward me. He must have seen and recognized my feet, because I’m looking underneath at his. Now, my heart’s going, “bum-bum-bum-bum-bum” And then, I hear — how to put this felicitously various? — evacuatory noises, utterly unmuffled. We don’t like that. We don’t even like our own. That’s why we flush during, as well as after. And then, I hear this gravelly voice say, “Hey, is that Dr. Little?” If anything is guaranteed to constipate — an introvert for six months, it’s talking on the john.

So, what I do now, as a pseudo-extrovert trying to muddle through life and it’s vicissitudes, when I go to the washroom as a restorative niche for acting out of character, as a pseudo-extrovert, like many of you might do, I put my feet up. And I swear one of these days, a real extrovert at a TED conference is going to say, “Got you!” And that will be the day I die.

Thank you.

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