The solitary inventor, buried away in garage or shed, is the classic depiction of introvert as born problem-solver. But new research, published recently in Psychological Studies, suggests that it’s extraverted people who perform better at classical tests of problem-solving, thanks to their tendency to be motivated in ways that are helpful for achieving.
Vidya Athota at the University of Notre Dame, Australia and Richard Roberts at the Center for Innovative Assessments in New York ran computerised sessions of the Tower of Hanoi test (see a model below), in which participants disassemble a tapering tower of disks threaded onto a pole, in order to eventually reassemble them into a new tower on another pole. To do this, they make use of a third, spare pole to help fulfil the task rule that in forming the new tower you must only lay new discs onto larger ones.
|Image: Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason/ Wikipedia.|
The 195 student participants tried to solve as many rounds of this that they could in three minutes, and also completed questionnaires on personality and personal values, specifically pleasure-oriented and service-oriented approaches to the world (essentially measuring how much they prioritised having fun in life versus concern for the welfare of others).
Athota and Roberts found the more extraverted participants solved more Towers of Hanoi, but only because they tended to be more interested in pursuing pleasure in the form of sensual gratification and especially stimulation and excitement. When these two values were accounted for, extraversion in itself didn’t provide extra predictive power.
At first blush, stimulation and sensual gratification sound like drives that would lead people away from cracking codes and straight onto a rollercoaster, no seatbelt required, thanks. But cognitive work that promises a satisfying payoff is facilitated by a higher appetite for rewards, which seems to be what we’re seeing here, with participants marshalling their focus and mental resources to beat the tower as often as possible.
By revealing why extraverts tackle certain tasks better, this study helps us figure out when they may not. Being strongly attracted to pleasure is associated with extraversion, but the promised thrill of success won’t be prominent in every creative challenge – problem solving is often about more than tackling circumscribed puzzles – so we shouldn’t expect extraverts to excel on all challenges. That said, when we look at this issue from other angles – such as the types of people who make more creative scientists – extraverts also defy expectations, tending to be among the most creative. Just as the notion that extraverts always make better salespeople is mistaken, we should be aware that think-work is not the sole domain of the introvert, but will suit different personality types better according to the specific characteristics of task, incentives, and social environment.
Athota, V., & Roberts, R. (2015). How Extraversion + Leads to Problem-Solving Ability Psychological Studies, 60 (3), 332-338 DOI: 10.1007/s12646-015-0329-3
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