Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Quiet: Book Review


Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking offers a sophisticated examination of “the single most important aspect of personality”—where a person falls on the introvert-extrovert spectrum (2). Being an introvert or extrovert shapes the choices we make about friends, life partners, hobbies, careers, social interactions, critical thinking skills, and pretty much everything else. In the United States, Cain points out, we have embraced an “Extravert Ideal.” She explains that “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts—which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are” (3). In reality, however, we are a nation of extroverts and introverts. Somewhere between one third and one half of all Americans are introverts. Through an examination of the relevant scientific research, Cain critiques modern society and its emphasis on extroversion and seeks to recognize and foster the contributions of introverts. 

Borrowing an idea from the cultural historian Warren Susman, Cain outlines how the “Extrovert Ideal” arose out of a fundamental shift in the early 20th century away from a culture of character to a culture of personality. "In the Culture of Character," the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private” (21). With the culture of personality, “Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining” (21). 

As the “Extrovert Ideal” came to dominate American culture, it reshaped institutions like workplaces and schools. The best workers in the office were those who were bold, aggressive, and charismatic. The best students were those who spoke up, asserted themselves, and eagerly shared their ideas. Such workers and students got better grades, earned more promotions, and were generally held in higher regard by their superiors than their introverted colleagues. 

The problem with valorizing these behaviors, as Cain points out, is that they don’t lead to better results. The loudest, most assertive, or most confident speakers aren’t better leaders nor do they have better ideas or make better decisions. Building on the work of other researchers, Cain suggests that this extrovert ideal contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and other recent business scandals. Vincent Kaminski, a former research director at Enron, tried to warn the company of its dangerous business practices, but was ignored and demoted by his more aggressive and risk-taking bosses—the same men who drove the company into bankruptcy. 

Similarly, the student who talks first, loudest, or most assertively doesn’t have better ideas than anyone else. In fact, they’re most often the student who has thought the least about the question being asked. Yet as research has shown, we rate people, individually and in groups, who are talkative as more intelligent and attractive. Cain stresses that recognizing the contributions of introverts means we must confront and acknowledge our own biases.

Cain interrogates the stereotypical understanding of introverts as anti-social by examining the scientific literature on the subject. She highlights the influential research of psychologist Jerome Kagan who identified the importance of the amygdala, the brain’s emotional switchboard, in understanding introversion and extroversion. Among its many responsibilities, the amygdala detects new or threatening environments and reacts to them. Kagan theorized that people who had high reactivity to new situations were more likely to be introverts. When placed in new situations, introverts had higher levels of activity in their amygdale, while extroverts were less reactive.

Kagan’s research redefines what we think of as the primary differences between introverts and extroverts. Instead of defining extroverts as social and introverts as unsocial, we should think of them as differently social. Because introverted brains are more activated by novelty, introverts tend to react more deeply—intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise—than extroverts whose brains don’t engage on this deeper level.  

Researchers have also identified how introverts can act like extroverts through a trait known as “self-monitoring.” High self-monitors are highly skilled at adapting their behavior to match the demands of a given social situation. They look for clues on how to act based on the environment, the context, and the behavior of others. Low self-monitors are less sensitive to social cues and allow their own personalities to guide their interactions.

But, as Cain points out, introverts can only play the role of extroverts for a certain amount of time before they need to withdraw and recharge. Getting better at playing the extrovert comes with practice and determination. Cain also stresses that acting like an extrovert is a good thing, especially if it’s in service of something good/useful like your career, fulfilling a passion, promoting some good cause etc. 

Ultimately, Cain's Quiet is an outspoken call to reevaluate and rebalance the societal relationship between introversion and extroversion. 

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