In Quiet, author Susan Cain contends that whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert affects every aspect of your life. Your personality type influences your choice of partner, friends, career, and lifestyle, as well as how those choices play out—for instance, how you advance in your career or handle differences in relationships.
Researchers say a third to a half of Americans are introverts, who tend to be quiet, thoughtful, and need time alone. However, Western society is heavily skewed toward extroverts. Our culture, including schools, social institutions, and workplaces, celebrates and is shaped around an “Extrovert Ideal”—a belief that the ideal personality type is someone who is bold, sociable, and seeks the spotlight.
Yet introverts have many underappreciated strengths, including empathy, persistence, concentration, creativity, and the ability to solve complex problems. “Quiet” thinkers are responsible for many important discoveries and artistic achievements, including Einstein’s theories of gravity, Chopin’s Nocturne, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Besides scientists and artists, high-achieving introverts include Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Al Gore, and Warren Buffett.
Rather than establishing strict definitions of introversion and extroversion, this book explores broad questions, such as whether introverts can be leaders, whether they should ever act like extroverts, and whether introversion/extroversion is biologically or socially determined. Further, it advocates a balance in society, school, and work that lets introverts be true to themselves and where the two personality types complement each other.
There’s no universally accepted definition of introversion/extroversion based on objective criteria, but many psychological researchers agree that:
Introverts are stereotyped as recluses or loners who dislike people. This may be true of some introverts, but most are as friendly as anyone. Another stereotype is that introverts are shy. Although some introverts may be shy, there are key differences between introversion and shyness. Shy people dislike social situations because they’re afraid of embarrassment, while introverts dislike social situations because they’re too stimulating.
Introverts also may be “highly sensitive,” which is a psychological term meaning more apt to respond with strong feelings to something—for instance, to be moved by a sad story or be upset by violence.
We’ve built our society almost entirely around extroversion. In school systems, for example, this is reflected in the way classrooms are organized and taught: Desks are arranged to facilitate group projects and high levels of interaction and activity. Most teachers believe students should be extroverts.
In the workplace, we’re expected to engage in relentless self-promotion to develop and promote our personal “brand.” To advance in many careers, extroversion usually is essential.
Introverts, as both children and adults, are constantly pushed to be more outgoing. Parents and teachers urge children to “come out of their shell” and be more sociable and to participate more in class. Adults are chided for being “in their head” too much, or seen as disengaged at work when they want to think rather than react off the cuff.
But this focus on extroversion has downsides. One downside in the business world is a preference for “Groupthink” that prioritizes teamwork above all. It’s based on the erroneous belief that creativity and intellectual achievement come from collaboration. In reality, an exclusive focus on teamwork actually undercuts creativity, which requires solitude and intense concentration (two things associated with introverts).
Groupthink is responsible for three work phenomena that hinder creativity:
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In Quiet, author Susan Cain argues that whether you’re an introvert or extrovert affects every aspect of your life. Your temperament influences your choice of partner, friends, career, and lifestyle, as well as how those choices play out—for instance, how you advance in your career or handle differences in relationships. It even plays a role in daily activities, such as exercise and sleep, as well as your pursuit of passions, challenges, and downtime.
Scientists and writers dating back to the Romans, Greeks, and the Bible have studied introversion and extroversion extensively. They’ve even found that some animals can be identified as introverts or extroverts. The two personality types working together can create effective partnerships like, for instance, that of Martin Luther King Jr. (an extrovert) and Rosa Parks (an introvert). Her quiet defiance in refusing to give up her bus seat made her an appealing symbol King could use to rally others to the cause of integration.
A third to a half of Americans are introverts, according to studies. They tend to be quiet and thoughtful and prefer less stimulation. There’s a good chance that you’re an introvert yourself—or you...
A half to a third of Americans are introverts, according to studies. They tend to be quiet, thoughtful, and prefer less stimulation than extroverts. They also may prefer to work alone, focusing on one task, while extroverts are multitaskers and thrive in busy environments.
Where do you fall on the introversion-extroversion scale? Which personality traits, preferences, or behaviors make you believe you're more introverted, more extroverted, or a balance of both?
U.S. society has not always promoted extroversion as the ideal. Up until the start of the twentieth century, the focus was on character rather than personality. The ideal person was serious, self-disciplined, and moral. How you behaved in private—your virtue—was more important than outward charm or impressing others. (Exceptions were sometimes made in politics, where brashness drew admiration and votes.)
A shift from a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality” occurred at the turn of the century in response to a convergence of economic forces, including industrialization; migration from rural areas to cities; and the rise of retail giants such as Woolworths, J.C. Penney, and Sears Roebuck.
In retail, it became important to make a good impression on others with whom you had no past connection, in contrast to interacting with people in small towns whom you’d known all your life. The burgeoning retail sector needed a different kind of employee—a gregarious salesman with the ability to get along with anyone and be comfortable in any situation. Having a “good personality” became paramount. At the same time, Americans developed a fascination with celebrities, further...
One hundred years after the advent of the culture of personality, we’ve elevated extroversion to hyper-extroversion and equated it with leadership. It permeates the self-improvement industry, business schools, corporate culture, and even churches. But charismatic leaders aren’t as effective as most people think—in some circumstances, introverted leaders may be more effective.
Today’s hyper-extrovert is personified by self-help guru Tony Robbins, whose high-energy workshops on building self-confidence (the $895 four-day entry-level session is called “Unleash the Power Within”) draw thousands. They culminate in a voluntary walk across hot coals.
Robbins has a “hyperthermic” or extreme extrovert temperament characterized by one psychiatrist as “exuberant, upbeat, over-energetic, and overconfident”—which are traits touted as assets in business, particularly sales. Indeed, Robbins is a salesman, constantly urging attendees at his sessions to buy additional higher-priced packages.
At first, the culture of personality urged people to develop an extrovert personality to stand out from competitors. Robbins’s message, however, is that extroversion not only ensures success but also...
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Many corporate cultures favor extroverts—action-oriented talkers with great presentation styles. Studies have shown that we rate people who talk the most as smarter than those who are quiet. However, ignoring or overlooking input from quiet, thoughtful people can lead to poor decisions.
Think about your colleagues at work—which do you think are introverts and which are extroverts? Whose voices are listened to most?
U.S. institutions, including our schools and workplaces, are structured to serve the extrovert ideal. The organizing principle is “Groupthink,” which prioritizes teamwork above all. Groupthink practices, such as “cooperative learning” in schools and open offices and brainstorming in the workplace, are based on the erroneous belief collaboration is necessary for creativity and intellectual achievement.
The Groupthink notion that creativity is the product of teamwork has influential advocates, including prominent author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote that innovation is “fundamentally social.” Organizational consultant Warren Bennis claimed in Organizing Genius that the “great group” has replaced the “great man.” However, in reality, an exclusive focus on collaboration actually undercuts creativity and achievement.
The belief in teamwork above all dominates the corporate workplace. Organizing employees into teams became a popular practice in the 1990s—half of all companies used teams by 2000, while nearly all do so today. Most managers believe teamwork is necessary for success.
Some teams work together remotely while others work...
Many companies have open office floor plans with little or no private space in an effort to encourage collaboration and creativity, although studies show open offices actually reduce productivity. The noise and interruptions common in these settings can create stress.
In what kind of work environment are you most productive? How does that compare to where you actually work? What is your office design?
Studies of personality support the premise that introversion and extroversion can be biologically based. Introversion is associated with traits observable in infancy, including high reactivity, alertness, sensitivity to nuance, and emotional intensity.
In 1989, developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard began a longitudinal or years-long study of 500 four-month-old babies and was able to tell which ones would turn out to be extroverts and which would be introverts based on innate temperament.
By introducing stimuli such as voices, popping balloons, or smells, Kagan determined which infants were highly reactive (crying and throwing their arms around) and which were low-reactive. Counterintuitively, he predicted the highly reactive babies were likely to be quiet or introverts as teenagers, which turned out to be the case.
He did further testing of their reactions to new things—for instance, a clown and a woman wearing a gas mask—when the children were two, four, seven, and eleven. Most of the children turned out exactly as Kagan expected: high-reactive children turned out to be introverts while low-reactive children were extroverts.
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Further research by Dr. Carl Schwartz at Massachusetts General Hospital on Kagan’s subjects as teenagers showed that we can stretch beyond our inherited characteristics, but only to a point. Our temperaments continue to influence us throughout our lives.
Schwartz used an fMRI machine that measures brain activity. He showed participants a fast-moving series of photos of people’s faces to simulate the experience of walking into a crowded room. Some of the photos were repeated and became “familiar,” while new ones were continually added to the sequence. The people who had been highly reactive as children were more sensitive—they reacted more strongly—to the photos of unfamiliar faces.
Some of the high-reactives had grown into socially engaged and friendly teenagers who were not outwardly bothered by new experiences, but their brains still reacted more strongly to the unfamiliar faces.
Our personalities are somewhat like rubber bands, able to stretch but only so far. Introvert Bill Gates can hone his social skills but he’ll never be as gregarious as Bill Clinton—and Clinton will never be a solitary computer genius like Gates.
Since 1997, Dr. Elaine Aron, a research psychologist, has further explored the trait of high reactivity, which she has recharacterized as sensitivity. She found that highly sensitive people, 70% of whom are introverts, share a set of distinct attributes that, when recognized, can benefit society.
Aron’s list of twenty-seven characteristics, based on interviews and questionnaires with people who described themselves as being introverted or easily overwhelmed by stimulation, dovetailed with Kagan’s findings as well as with other research. The research found that highly sensitive people:
Introverts and extroverts think differently when it comes to making decisions, taking chances, recognizing and heeding warning signs, and solving complex problems. Both have strengths that they can leverage to their benefit when they also mitigate the downsides of their way of thinking. Companies can benefit by making sure both kinds of thinkers are involved in key decisions.
A big difference between introverts and extroverts is how they view potential rewards or benefits they might get from taking certain actions. Extroverts are often reward-sensitive, meaning they’re highly motivated to seek rewards, whether job promotions, gambling winnings, or goals such as money, social status, sex, and influence. In contrast, introverts are better at controlling their emotional response to potential rewards and delaying gratification.
Some researchers believe the tendency to seek rewards—from alpha status to money and sex—is a key characteristic of extroversion. Reward-seeking drives them to be more ambitious and social than introverts. Extroverts get a “high” (pleasure and excitement) from pursuing and reaching their goals. This takes the form of a...
Introverts and extroverts differ in how they view potential rewards or benefits they might get from taking certain actions. Extroverts are often reward-sensitive, meaning they’re highly motivated to seek rewards, such as promotions, money, social status, sex, and influence. In contrast, introverts are less sensitive to potential rewards and better at delaying gratification.
Where do you think you fall on the reward-sensitivity spectrum? Why do you say that?
The extrovert ideal isn’t as “natural” or as revered everywhere as Americans might think. Whether extroversion or introversion predominates may depend on where you live or the culture in which you were raised.
In 2004, research psychologist Robert McCrae published a map of the world based on the personality traits most prominent in various countries and cultures: Asia is introverted while Europe and the U.S. are highly extroverted. While it’s important to avoid stereotyping entire cultures and assigning group characteristics to individuals, it would be a mistake to ignore Asian cultural differences and introversion—there are aspects of Asian cultural style and personality the Western world can learn from.
A great deal of research underscores that there are cultural/personality type differences between East and West. For example, one study comparing children in Shanghai and Ontario, Canada, found that while shy and sensitive personalities were discouraged in Canada, children with those personalities were popular in China and were more likely to have leadership roles. In another study, Chinese students told researchers they preferred friends who were sensitive, humble,...
As noted in Chapter 5, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you have the ability to stretch your personality beyond your comfort zone and act in ways that don’t come naturally to you.
Introverts, in particular, often act like extroverts in pursuit of goals they care about. They succeed by using techniques such as self-monitoring and creating “restorative niches,” where they can take timeouts to recharge.
Some introverts become so good at acting out of character that the people around them have no idea how out of character they really are. For instance, Professor Brian Little, by nature an introvert, pushed so hard to act like an extrovert that he seemed to have a dual personality. Before he retired, he was a Harvard University psychology lecturer and acclaimed teacher/performer who was so popular with students that his classes were standing room only and often ended in ovations. He also was a popular speaker for a variety of organizations, including the military. However, in his “off” time, Little lived in a cabin in the woods of Canada, with few visitors other than family. He spent his time there reading and writing in solitude. Eventually, the “acting” led to burnout...
Even if you’re pursuing a goal important to you, acting out of character for too long takes a lot of energy. To recharge, you need to create “restorative niches,” where you can relax and be yourself. They can be places you go to get away from the pressure or mental breaks such as meditation.
Think of a situation where you had to act in a way that was out of character and stressful for you—for instance, giving a speech or socializing with the boss. What aspects required the most energy and when did you start running out of energy?
Introverts and extroverts are often drawn to each other in the way that opposites seem to attract. The two personality types can be complementary: one talks and the other listens; one is always ready for action, while the other wants to consider all the options; one schedules activities, while the other pays the bills.
But problems can occur when a couple’s different personality types pull them in opposite directions. The key to a lasting relationship is understanding and accepting the different ways that each communicates, resolves differences, and socializes.
Greg, an extrovert, and Emily, an introvert, are an example. They have a generally compatible relationship, but they reached an impasse over Friday night dinners, which Greg, a music promoter, has been hosting for years. Emily, a staff attorney for an art museum and a very private person, dreads them. When she gets home, she wants to unwind alone, not entertain a crowd. She volunteered to visit her sister on Friday nights as a compromise, but he doesn’t want to host the dinners by himself. Greg feels as though Emily is backing out of a key part of their marriage contract and he feels alone. He believes she’s...
Introverted children face unique challenges at home and at school, where parents and teachers try to get them to act like their extroverted peers.
Parents may try to change introverted children—for instance, an extrovert parent may push a quiet child to play team sports or have a lot of friends. Whether they’re extroverted or introverted themselves, parents may fear an introverted child won’t be able to function in society without changing. When a parent wants to change a child, it’s a bad parent-child fit, according to one psychologist. However, both introverted and extroverted parents can be a good fit for an introverted child by being accepting and learning to see the world from the child’s perspective.
For instance, Joyce’s seven-year-old daughter, Isabel, was sensitive, empathetic, and easily overwhelmed. Isabel didn’t want her mother arranging activities for her after school because, as an introvert, she was tired after her school day and wanted to be alone or with only her mother. Until Joyce understood introversion, she thought something was wrong with Isabel. Then she changed the way she parented, following her daughter’s lead when Isabel wanted downtime and...