By Emma Young
Extraverts are hugely sociable — they really care about their relationships, and possess outstanding social skills. Well, that’s how extraverts are generally portrayed. But, according to new work, that’s not exactly how other people see them. In a series of studies reported in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Francis J. Flynn at Stanford University, US and colleagues consistently found that more extraverted people are considered to be poorer listeners. Their research also reveals a likely reason why.
There is no academic consensus on what constitutes “good” listening. But, in line with some other researchers, the team conceptualises it as involving emotion-related processes (showing empathy, for example, and emotional engagement with what the other person is saying), cognitive processes (paying attention to and comprehending what they’re saying) and also behavioural processes (such as nodding and asking questions). In everyday life, it’s not necessarily easy to ascertain whether the person we’re talking to is really listening, however. They might be making plenty of eye contact, for example (which would suggest engagement), but it’s always possible that they’re just pretending to be listening well, in a bid to make a good impression. In this research, the team focused on only the participants’ perceptions of others’ listening skills.
In a preliminary study, 147 first-year business students, who met weekly in groups of six to work on leadership skills, rated the listening skills of everyone else in their group (rating how much that person seemed to listen while they spoke, and later remembered what they’d said, for example). The participants then completed a scale that assessed their own extraversion. The team found that those with higher self-reported extraversion got poorer marks for listening.
However, in this study, people’s perceptions could have been influenced by the actual social relationships they had with other members of their group. So in almost all of the subsequent studies, fresh groups of participants rated the listening skills of fictional people who were described as falling at various points on the introversion-extraversion spectrum. Results from these studies supported the preliminary finding. Time and again, extraverted people were rated as being poorer listeners in social situations. As the team writes: “That is, despite the tendency for people to see extroverts as highly sociable, they tend to see this sociability as highly one-sided.”
An online study of 337 US-based adults suggested why this might be. Fictional people who were portrayed as highly extraverted were also perceived to be better at controlling and modifying how they come across to others. “To observers, this signal of malleable self-presentation suggests that extraverts are more interested in ‘looking the part’ than attending to what others have to say,” the team writes.
Are extraverts actually poorer listeners? Only further research will tell. But the team cautions that such work will be tricky to do, because of the difficulties in objectively evaluating listening. In any case, they add, the lack of objective information on a conversational partner’s listening means that we rely heavily on our pre-existing assumptions as well as limited behavioural cues. “Thus, although it might be an interesting exercise to test the validity of the lay belief that extraverts are worse listeners, it might not matter much. Instead, people may continue to rely on their lay beliefs to judge whether the other person is listening or merely pretending to listen.”
It would be really interesting, though, to see work on the real-world implications of this particular belief. “For example, listening has been identified as the ‘holy grail’ in sales roles,” the team notes — so perhaps it would be wise for highly extraverted sales people to try to modify their behaviour with clients. One important note is that of course that these findings are on US adults — they may not hold in other countries in which extraversion is either less or more socially desirable.
Still, for these assorted US participants, evidence for the belief that extraverts are worse listeners was found across the experiments. A vast amount of research has been done on extraversion itself. “Our findings contribute to the study of extraversion by examining how people think about extraversion,” the researchers write (their italics). And for understanding conversations and relationships, which of course are two-way, that’s clearly important, too.