Rachel Miller-Sprafke
Aug 6, 2015

Accounting for introversion

Research samples are designed to account for population differences in order to be representative. But how do we account for introverts if they consistently screen themselves out of research?

Rachel Miller-Sprafke
Rachel Miller-Sprafke

Most of us have an intuitive understanding of the differences between introverts and extroverts. The mistake is to assume it’s simply a matter of shyness, and not all that important, when in fact this genetic difference gives rise to profoundly different behavioural traits.

The key distinction between introversion and extroversion is whether you derive and direct energy primarily inward, or outward. Introverts require time alone to recharge; extroverts gain energy through socialization. Introverts feel most comfortable with people they know well; extroverts enjoy meeting new people. Introverts find small talk difficult and draining; it comes naturally to extroverts. Introverts are uneasy being asked unexpected questions and do best when given time to reflect privately on an issue; extroverts happily share their thoughts and opinions on the hoof.

Given the behavioural differences between the two groups, it’s no surprise that face-to-face consumer research is skewed toward extroverts. Focus groups require a group of strangers to open up immediately, share their thoughts and feelings spontaneously and engage in lively debate with people they’ve never met before and will never see again. In other words, a focus group sounds like an introvert’s personal hell.

Within qualitative research there is a necessary preference for respondents who can speak freely, openly and confidently. We assume these louder people are telling us the same things their quieter counterparts would be saying themselves, if only they felt comfortable enough to do so. This assumption seems problematic for two reasons.

First, there is the simple fact that extroverts and introverts process information differently. They seek and find pleasure through different means. An introvert might get the same level of satisfaction from quiet reflection that an extrovert gets from making a group of people laugh. In speaking primarily to extroverted consumers, we might be missing out on an array of introvert-specific needs. An ad researched successfully with a group of extroverts might fall flat when viewed by introverts in the real world. Insights gathered through dialogue with extroverts might fail to resonate with those on the other side of the spectrum.

The second issue with this bias is one of missed opportunity. One of the traits often associated with introversion is a high level of self-awareness and thoughtfulness. By neglecting to speak to introverts, we could be missing out on hearing from a group of people who make reflecting on their inner life a priority. What could be more useful in qualitative consumer research than a respondent who is by their very nature highly attuned to and informed about their inner desires?

Give them the right opportunity and a comfortable research context, and introverts could easily provide immeasurably useful insight and commentary on their own needs, or the role of certain products and brands in their lives. 

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Of course, it would be wrong to assume we never hear from introverts at all. Certain methodologies are more naturally geared toward finding them, individual interviews and interviews with small groups of friends being obvious examples. Digital presents another interesting opportunity for reaching this group; the computer or mobile phone acting as a buffer allowing respondents to answer on their own time, on their own terms and from well within their comfort zone.

No one knows definitively what percentage of the population identifies as introverts, but it seems reasonable to assume it is significant. As we learn more about the psychological differences that separate the two ends of the spectrum, it’s worth considering how best to reach this quieter, more thoughtful, internally directed group.

For a better explanation of introversion, the seminal 2003 article ‘Caring for Your Introvert’ is still the best thing I’ve read on the issue.

Rachel Miller-Sprafke is associate director with Flamingo


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