People—Who Needs Them?

Examining Friendship and Other Social Bonds

It’s easy to label ourselves and others as either introverted or extraverted. As with most generalizations, though, reality is so much more nuanced. A deeper understanding of these terms can help make more-meaningful relationships possible.

Do you consider yourself an introvert? Maybe you’ve even done an online quiz or aptitude test at some point to verify your suspicion. If so, you’re not alone (ironically enough). According to the Myers-Briggs Company, about 57 percent of the world’s population “prefers” introversion. There’s even a World Introvert Day to celebrate—quietly, of course—this personality preference.

There’s only one thing wrong with that statistic: the surveys and tests that produced it ask either-or questions that can’t detect ambiversion—the term that in reality best describes most of us. Instead these quizzes force responses that inevitably lead to the misleading label of either extravert or introvert.

This may seem harmless enough on the surface, but what happens when we think of these characteristics as fixed traits? If we believe this is a basic aspect of our nature that can’t be changed, what does that do to the social fabric of whole communities?

To give us a sense of how skewed the statistic is, psychologists Curt and Anne Bartol explain that a relatively small number of people are actually introverts in any measurable sense. “Usually, two out of every three people will score in the ‘average’ range on the extraversion dimension,” they write. This disqualifies most from even being subjects in studies about extraversion and introversion. In fact, the Bartols write, “roughly 16 percent of the population are extraverts, and another 16 percent introverts, and the remainder (68 percent) are ambiverts” (Criminal Behavior: A Psychosocial Approach).

In other words, studies comparing introverts and extraverts examine people on the extremes—a minority of the population. It may be tempting to think of extraversion and introversion as two sides of a coin—that each of us is either one or the other—but this is simply not the case. The concept should instead be viewed as a spectrum with a generous (and generally preferable) middle ground.

Where does the pop-psych concept of introversion and extraversion come from? Psychiatrist Carl Jung first developed the idea, but to him the terms described the direction in which one’s “psychic energy” flowed; introverts preferred to focus on their inner feelings, dreams and fantasies, while extraverts would focus on outward, tangible realities—not just other people, but things. Even Jung, however, acknowledged a third, larger group who fit neither category. This was largely overlooked as his ideas trickled down, with certain distortions, to the public.

The resulting idea of black-and-white stereotypes manifests itself in countless ways. For instance, we’re programmed to believe that introverts make great librarians and accountants, but that to do well in sales, you have to be an extravert.

Introverts are ‘geared to inspect,’ while extraverts are ‘geared to respond.’ Selling of any sort—whether traditional sales or non-sales selling—requires a delicate balance of inspecting and responding. Ambiverts can find that balance.”

Daniel Pink, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (2012)

Taking Our Measure

After reading about Jung’s typology, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, came up with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Katharine loved to read biographies and became curious about the personality differences she saw in them. When she came across Jung’s Psychological Types in the 1920s, it resonated with her and she brought it to her daughter’s attention. The two women (who, it must be noted, were not psychologists) went on to develop a personality test loosely based on Jung’s principles. While the first version of the MBTI came out in 1943, Isabel worked over the next few decades to refine the test items to more closely match Jungian personality types.

The MBTI has been successfully marketed to the public and is now one of the most popular personality tests used in workplaces, but professional clinicians rarely use it. This is partly because it arose from untrained interpretations of Jung’s theories of psychological types, but also because Jung’s theories have gradually been replaced by the broader understanding that personality is more fluid than once believed.

Psychologists are therefore more likely to use tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) that measure personality facets on continuums. In the case of how extraverted we might be, a continuum allows for the fact that most people (to differing degrees) sometimes want to be around others and sometimes want to be alone; we sometimes feel energized by socializing and sometimes by our solitary projects. Unlike the Myers-Briggs, tests like the MMPI have been “validated,” which simply means that research supports the claim that they actually do measure what they’re designed to measure.

If we really want to understand social relationships, then, it’s probably time to stop labeling ourselves and others with misunderstood and misapplied terms and to focus instead on our universally shared and well-recognized need to connect.

Social Animal, Lone Ranger—or Something Else?

People are social beings. It’s an innate trait, seated deep in the brain in a pair of little almond-shaped structures called the amygdala. When these are damaged, people no longer recognize the emotional connections they once had with family and friends; their social world no longer has the significance it once did. They may retreat from human contact; but there is no loneliness, no sorrow for their state, because they aren’t even aware of the magnitude of their loss.

In our typical state, however, we crave companionship. As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people don’t thrive that way and will fill the gap by making a confidant of their horse, car or any other possible stand-in. This is not breaking news, of course. The human drive to connect has long been recognized as fundamental. Yet the implications of this truth sometimes pass unappreciated.

No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote English renaissance poet John Donne around 1624; “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were. . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

A priest as well as a poet, Donne is likely to have read these words attributed to King Solomon: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1, English Standard Version).

Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up!”

Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, Holman Christian Standard Bible

Even in modern Western society, individualistic to its core, the human yearning for social bonds is celebrated in cultural works: “People who need people,” wrote lyricist Bob Merrill in 1964, “are the luckiest people in the world.” The song focused mainly on romantic relationships, and romantic partners certainly qualify as “people who need people.” But they are by no means the only ones who do. We’re all in the same boat—whether single, married, old, young; regardless of race, gender, culture or any other delineation—social connection and interaction are a key to human survival.

But what is social connection anyway? How many and what kinds of connections are important?

The simple word social can mean different things, depending on context. Researchers use the word generally to describe how people relate to one another in any organized, interdependent society. Social skills are the tools that allow them to relate well in their relationships, whether in close bonds or casual ones. Social bonds can refer specifically to friendships but can also describe the connection between individuals and their society.

In everyday conversation, social can also have various connotations. We hear the word in such wide-ranging phrases as social climber, social drinker, social media and social distancing. Again the common thread has to do with people and their interactions, but it’s easy to fall into stereotyping. We may think of a social as an event where we avoid heavy topics of conversation, which can lead us to think the interactions are likely superficial. If we notice someone flitting from conversation to conversation at such a gathering, we might label them social butterflies and assume that they themselves are shallow, frivolous—unable to sustain deep relationships. And perhaps we also pigeonhole them as extraverts. We may see others who prefer to sit on the sidelines and judge them to be wallflowers or, worse, social misfits—and introverts.

These stereotypes reinforce myths that cripple the potential for personal growth. Once we label ourselves (or others) as introverts or extraverts, we leave little room for the growth mindset we all need to become the best version of ourselves. In fact, researchers are learning that when we identify with one extreme or the other, we may begin to ignore or suppress the inevitable parts of our personality that contradict the label we’ve accepted.

Reconsidering Friendship

How important is our need for social bonds? It’s so important that we come into the world with it, just as we arrive with a need for food, water, clothing and shelter. If any of these requirements is missing, we fail to thrive.

Our first and most formative ties are typically with family members, but they’re not the only relationships we need over the course of our lives. Even in early childhood, peer relationships and the prosocial skills we gain from them will affect many measures of health and well-being on into adulthood. Studies across cultures show that when we lack strong social networks, we’re more susceptible to (and have difficulty recovering from) mental and physical illness. As we age, friends begin to outnumber family in these networks, giving them an ever more important role in keeping us healthy.

Do not protect yourself by a fence, but rather by your friends.”

Czech Proverb

Besides these benefits, friendships offer other gifts. We change and grow because of them. We learn about who we are and who we hope to become through feedback from others. With some of these others, we’ll have deep and lasting relationships. With some we’ll have more casual relationships. But even our most superficial relationships can influence us in surprisingly profound ways; and even in the Internet age, it seems that friendships remain diverse and complex in the lives of most people.

In trying to understand friendship, British social researchers Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl studied its current nature and role in society. Published in 2006 as Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today, the study mapped the personal communities of men and women across different ages, life stages and socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds throughout Britain. They looked for noticeable patterns and were amazed at the rich variety of ways in which people arrange their social worlds. In the end they didn’t find evidence that the Internet weakens social ties or makes real-world interactions obsolete: “There has not been a mass retreat from face-to-face sociability, and it seems that the Internet is mainly used to complement and sustain existing relationships, rather than creating entirely new personal networks.” In fact, in times of isolation, the Internet can strengthen—and even save—relationships between family and friends.

Through detailed interviews, Spencer and Pahl also discovered that most people don’t see family and friends as distinct groups: We hold some friends as dear as family, and we give some family members a place among our dearest friends. They also exposed a depth of field in patterns of friend-making that illustrates why terms such as extraversion and introversion are woefully inadequate—and even misleading—as descriptions of human sociability.

Without knowing something about the quality of different friendships,” they noted, “it is difficult to draw many conclusions from the fact that some people include more than twenty friends [in their personal community], others just one or two.”

Approaches to Friendship

Spencer and Pahl’s study turned up at least seven forms of personal communities, eight types of friendships and four kinds of friendship repertoires, a term intended to describe various approaches to friendship.

For instance, those who take a “basic” approach might depend only on family members or a partner for supportive, confiding relationships, or might prefer “to sort things out on their own.” They may allow friends to play limited, casual roles, but they do not view friends as confidants or support networks.

People with an “intense” approach to friendship define their personal community only by their closest, most complex relationships. Their network wouldn’t include any level of friendship beyond, for instance, a best friend or soul mate, such as a partner or other important family member.

In contrast are those who seek both simple and complex friendships, although their “focal” approach would distinguish between a small core of soul mates or confidants and a larger variety of associates and “fun” friends.

While Spencer and Pahl weren’t suggesting that their categories describe the full nature of friendship, they did include a fourth and very important one: those who take a “broad” approach that encompasses both simple and complex friendships. This sounds a lot like the “focal” approach, but these communities contain an even wider range of friendships, including almost all of the eight types of friends: associates, useful contacts, favor friends, fun friends, helpmates, comforters, confidants and soul mates. “Friends play many different roles and people with this kind of repertoire take their friendships very seriously,” Spencer and Pahl observed. “They tend to appreciate the particular qualities of different kinds of friendship.”

Our research shows that friendship can act as a vital safety-net providing much needed support and intimacy, but also as a safety-valve enabling people to relax and cope with the pressures of contemporary life.”

Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl, Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today (2006)

We might be tempted to dismiss the value of relationships that are based on sociability and fun, but Spencer and Pahl found that these friends can make important contributions to emotional resilience. As one of their research subjects noted, “because life is so serious most of the time, . . . it is nice to meet people that you can relax with. . . . Nowadays everybody works so hard and it’s so fast, that sometimes you just need to get away from it and have a really good laugh together.”

This sentiment has empirical support. Researchers have linked rumination (persistently dwelling on our problems) to unhappiness and even depression, and while it certainly helps to share a problem with a friend, mulling it over incessantly has the opposite effect. Besides fueling depression and stalling problem-solving, rumination tends to wear down our confidant’s compassion, potentially driving away even the closest of friends. Considering this factor alone, we’d certainly want our social support network to include some friends who share our troubles and others who might serve as distractions.

Indeed, when Spencer and Pahl measured mental health and well-being compared to the personal community structures of their subjects, they found some interesting patterns. Very small or fragile personal communities made for poor mental-health scores. This was true whether the deficit was caused by family instability during childhood or simply because people failed to nurture their friendships. It makes sense; people with broader personal communities have a range of people to rely on for support. On the other hand, people who have all their proverbial eggs in one basket are likely to find their entire world rocked if they lose their sole supportive relationship.

Spencer and Pahl’s study adds to the evidence that social relationships are essential to human health. But one of its most important contributions to our understanding of social bonds is the fact that our connections are so richly diverse and our patterns of forming and maintaining them so individual that labels such as introvert or extravert—or fears that the Internet spells the death of social interaction—completely miss the point. As human beings, our need for social interaction is innate. Introvert, extravert or ambivert, everybody needs a variety of bonds with other people in order to be mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.

It would seem, then, that people who need people aren’t just the luckiest people in the world, or even just the happiest people. They’re the only people. They are all of us.