Lisa Struckmeyer, my colleague here at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, asked me recently why the subtrait “Activity Mode” (E3 in the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0™) was one of the defining characteristics of extraversion. “Aren’t folks who are more introverted just as likely to be physically active as those who are more extraverted? It would seem to me that ‘activity mode’ is more associated with the scale that measures ambition—the C (for Consolidation, or Conscientiousness) scale.” I promised her an answer, and here it is.
First, the Big Five supertraits all have overlap with each other. N, E, O, A, and C are not like blue, red, yellow, white, and black on an artist’s palette. The colors are distinct from each other—there is no yellow in red, no red in blue, no white in yellow. The five supertraits are more like the major food groups: starches, produce, dairy, proteins, and sugary-fatty foods. Each of the groups is reasonably easy to define, just like the five supertraits. However, nutrients that characterize one group may also be found in another. For example, avocadoes are mostly carbohydrate, but they also contain fats. Snicker bars are mostly fatty/sugary, but they also contain some protein. And so forth. It is a matter of understanding their dominant characteristic. The same is true of the Big Five supertraits. As can be seen in Appendix J of the Professional Manual for the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0™, each of the 23 subtraits appears to some degree in all five of the supertraits, not just the “parent” supertrait with which they are normally associated. For example, “worry” is primarily associated with Need for Stability—they correlate at a very high level: +.81. However, N1: Worry also correlates to some degree with the other four: -.15 with Extraversion, -.17 with Originality/Openness, +.08 with Accommodation/Agreeableness, -.24 with Consolidation/Conscientiousness. In plain English, this means that worry extremely likely to be associated with persons who score high on N, and not likely to be associated with persons who score low on N. But, there is also a small chance that worry will be characteristic of some persons who are more introverted, of some who are more resistant to change, of some who are more accommodating, and of some who are more spontaneous. It is just that these last four connections are far from absolute. It is like saying that fats occasionally appear in fruits/veggies, but almost always in the fatty/sugary group.
So, now to Lisa’s question. Why is “Activity Mode” primarily associated with Extraversion? At this point, I can only describe the numbers and comment on them. Activity Level, which is measured by such questions as “Has energy to spare” and “Stays on the move,” is correlated with Extraversion to a stronger degree (r = .59) than it is with the other four supertraits: -.32 with N, +.12 with O, -.20 with A, and +.41 with C. In other words, more extraverted people are highly likely to be physically active, while more introverted people are more likely to be more sedentary. The next strongest association is with C, which means that people who are ambitious and disciplined have a tendency to be physically active, but not to the same extent as people who are more extraverted. Similarly, people who are resilient, creative, and competitive have a slight tendency to be more active than folks who are more subject to stress, more status quo oriented, and more accommodating. To say that extraverts (E+) as a group tend to be a little more physically active than focused individuals (C+) is similar to saying that sugary/fatty foods tend to have a little more fat content than dairy—yet, both sugary/fatty foods and dairy foods have lots of fat, more so than other food groups, just as E+ and C+ individuals generally are more physically active than those with extreme scores on N, O, or A.
One of my favorite illustrations about activity and extraversion deals with an embryo’s behavior during gestation. Mothers are keenly aware of the degree to which their embryo moves, kicks, punches, and otherwise makes its presence known in mom’s tummy. When I ask experienced mothers whether one child was more or less active than other children in the womb, they readily understand the question and frequently report that one child was noticeably, memorably, more active in the womb than the other(s). Then, I ask, “Today, which child is more extraverted—the one who was more active in the womb, or the one who was less active?” With rare exception, the more active that infants were in the womb, the more extraverted they are in later life.
What is important in all of this is to keep in mind that personality is about tendencies and not about absolutes. There are no perfect correlations—no hard-and-fast rules, only tendencies and probabilities. That is why we humans are so diverse, so interesting, so infinitely different from one another. Each of us is like a “trash can” pizza with no recipe—you never know quite what makes up the person until you take a very close, long-term look. We can’t assume that all extraverts are physically active any more than we can assume that all introverts are more sedentary. As Paul Valery said (but in French): “Truly seeing something is to forget the name of what one sees.”