The Illusion of Calmness in Introverts
by Henry (Dick) Thompson


Participants in introductory MBTI classes often hear the extraverted and introverted preferences contrasted by statements such as, "With an extravert what you see is what you get." "If you want to know what an extravert is thinking, just listen. If you want to know what an introvert is thinking, ask them." Although these statements may be a little extreme, there is a modicum of truth to them. People with an extraverted preference do seem to be more apt to talk, express their thoughts, initiate interaction and make friends more quickly than people with an introverted preference. Most extraverted cognitive action is reflected in outward behavior where it can be readily observed.

As a result of their energy being focused inwardly, introverts tend to be more reserved and less expressive - in general - than people with a preference for extraversion. This makes getting to know the "real" person more difficult. They have just as much cognitive action going on, it's just on the inside. Introverts are similar to a duck sitting on a pond. To the observer, it looks as if the duck is just sitting there, and the wind - or something - is moving it across the water. A look just beneath the surface reveals that the duck's little feet are paddling like crazy - you just don't see it from above. Introverts, like ducks, give the appearance of calmness.

The contrast of extraverted and introverted preferences raises the question of the impact of extraverted and introverted preferences on behavioral responses to stress. For example, will the normally calm introvert show signs of becoming discombobulated as the level of stress increases?

Stress, as defined by Hans Selye (1976), is the body's non-specific reaction to any demand placed on it. These non-specific reactions occur in both physiological and behavioral forms. Physiologically, stress is always accompanied by symptoms such as:

  • increased adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar
  • dry mouth
  • perspiration
  • pupil dilation
  • capillary constriction

Behaviorally, stress tends to be accompanied by:

  • withdrawal from social interaction
  • nervousness
  • anger
  • age regression
  • moodiness
  • apathy

The physiological symptoms are more difficult to observe in others than the behavioral changes. When the normally outgoing, expressive extravert withdraws from social interaction, it is easy to suspect that something is out of the ordinary with the person. But what about the introvert who has relatively low interaction and expressiveness to begin with? What happens to them?

My research (Thompson, 2001) with typological stress responses suggests some distinction between extraverts and introverts. To focus more on the interpersonal relations aspect of the extraverted-introverted stress response, data was collected on various Types using Will Schutz' FIRO Element B.

Schutz created a theory of interpersonal relations called FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation). The theory presented three dimensions of interpersonal relations posited to be necessary and sufficient to explain most human interaction. On the behavioral level, these dimensions were called Inclusion, Control and Openness. He created an instrument, FIRO Element B, to measure these three dimensions. Several books and articles have been published on the topic with elucidations to an MBTI linkage (Thompson, 2000a, b). When FIRO Element B and the MBTI are used in combination, they form a powerful tool for understanding how the various Types respond to stress.

Looking at stress through the FIRO lens reveals that, in general, people tend to make significant changes during interpersonal interactions under high stress on the dimensions of Inclusion and Openness. The Control dimension remains virtually the same. Self-reported Inclusion scores tend to drop significantly, indicating a radical decrease in the amount of social interaction people engage in and want when stressed. This is consistent with stress literature.

In general, people seem to want to maintain their "normal" level of Control over others and being controlled by others under stress.

Openness is similar to Inclusion in that people tend to want to be less open and want others to be less open with them as their stress level increases.

One purpose of the research was to look at how stress impacts the behavior of extraverts and introverts. The data show a dramatic difference in the magnitude of change on Inclusion and Openness scales between normal and stressed states for extraverts. Introverts show much less change on these scales.

The large change for extraverts and small change for introverts were validated by individuals who participated in the study. The data suggest that people who have an extraverted preference may exhibit significant and obvious changes in interpersonal interaction. Introverts, however, may show little overt change in interpersonal interaction as a result of stress, compared to extraverts, which might create an illusion of calmness in introverts.

There are many sources of descriptions of typological changes under stress (Delunas, 1992; Quenk, 1993; Thompson, 2000c). The focus here is on the subtle changes in introverts as seen through the FIRO lens.

As stress increases, the behavioral comfort zone for interpersonal interaction decreases. For example, an introvert might be more willing under low stress to flex to interact more with others when the situation requires it than they normally prefer. As stress increases the willingness to flex decreases. Associating the following subtle reactions with stress might allow you to see through the calmness illusion.

  • Rigidity. Stress tends to rigidify introverts around their interaction preferences. Their desire for interaction (Inclusion) and Openness tends to remain low and they become less flexible.
  • Denial. Most introverts report low Openness scores on FIRO Element B. Under stress their denial that anything is wrong or stressing them may be stronger.
  • Isolation. Most introverts report low Inclusion scores on FIRO Element B. Under stress they may seek or become more adamant about isolation - wanting to be left alone.
  • Uncontrollable. Although both extraverts and introverts want to control people more under stress, there is a significant decrease in the amount of control introverts want from others. The result is that they may resist being controlled more than normal.

These finding have direct implications for working with organizations and individuals. Managers should be aware that all employees do not show the same behavioral signs of stress build up. Consequently, there may be little warning that an employee is about to "go postal." One manager stated that she had continued to increase the workload of an employee (an introvert) until "he exploded." She had no idea of the level of stress he was under. His behavior had seemed almost the same in the stressed and non-stressed state.

From the individual perspective, introverts should be aware that others may not be aware of their increasing level of stress. What is obvious to the individual may not be obvious to the onlooker.

The results and conclusions presented here are preliminary and are designed to stimulate thought. As the data base grows to a size that allows for whole-Type research, we will be able to describe more accurately how each Type responds under stress. The key at this point is to remember that even on the macro-level, we can observe differences in how Types respond to stress. These observations point out the difficulty in recognizing when someone is becoming stressed and the type of response they may desire from others.


Delunas, E. (1992). Survival games personalities play. Carmel, CA: Sunflower Ink.
Quenk, N. (1993). Beside ourselves: Our hidden personality in everyday life. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.
Selye, H. (1976). The stress of life. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Thompson, H. (2000a). FIRO Element B and psychological type: Part I - Why FIRO Element B? Bulletin of Psychological Type, 23, 2, 18-22.
Thompson, H. (2000b). FIRO Element B and psychological type: Part II - FIRO Element B and MBTI Linkage. Bulletin of Psychological Type, 23, 3, 18-22.
Thompson, H. (2000c).Taming the tertiary and inferior functions. Bulletin of Psychological Type, 23, 8, 18-20.

facebook share icon linkedin share icon