The author Susan Cain doing her TED talk.
A book just about introversion? At first blush, this may seem like a too narrow focus, but according to Cain, this trait is the “single most important aspect of personality.” She makes a good case by listing the various things in life that are linked to the dichotomy of Introversion/Extraversion – choice of friends, career and education, exercise, adultery, risk-taking, delayed gratification, to mention a few.
Why America Became Extraverted
But in spite the many qualities inherent in the introverted mind, American society is still biased in favor of Extraversion, Cain argues. Already in school, the outgoing jocks and cheerleaders are popular while introverts go under labels like nerds or weirdoes, outcasts that most kids avoid. The same attitude can be found among adults, although usually expressed less bluntly. Studies show that talkative people rate as smarter, better-looking, and more interesting than the rest. This bias has even been prominent in psychology and psychiatry where introversion often has been viewed as dysfunctional or outright pathological. Adler is perhaps the best example of the academic bias (in his terminology introverts are called the Avoiding type and extraverts the Socially Useful type).
But things weren’t always like this. Cain points to what historian Warren Susman has called the transition from the Culture of Character to the Culture of Personality that took place in America in the early 1900s. This change was supposedly brought on by the industrialization and urbanization. The mass market and city life meant that you had to be able to get along with strangers in a way you never had to when living in a village or a small town. To illustrate the change, Cain presents Susman’s findings on word frequencies in self-help books and advice manuals of earlier times. In the 1800s the words that were most frequent were, Citizenship, Duty, Work, Honor, Integrity and similar. In the early 1900s these words were gradually replaced with others like Magnetic, Fascinating, Stunning, Attractive, Glowing, Dominant, Forceful and so on.
While this shift is interesting, I remain skeptical to the idea that external forces brought on such a dramatic shift in national personality. Given the how heritable personality traits are, and especially how little shared environment means, it seems more likely that this shift was due to an influx of extraverts. The early settlers were Puritans and others who came to practice their religion in peace, and they came from Northwest Europe. This no doubt was a more introverted group than the European average. When large scale immigration resumed around 1830 it wasn’t so much people fleeing religious persecution; it was people who had heard stories about the land of opportunity, and a lot of them came from Southern Europe. This demographic change seems to provide a better explanation to the emerging Culture of Personality, which perhaps more appropriately should be called the Culture of Perception.
The American Business Culture
When you compare America with Europe or the rest of the world, it’s tempting to view extraversion as an important factor in how America became so successful. Cain, however, rejects this idea. She visits Harvard Business School which is obsessed with social activities and perception – “good luck finding an introvert here” one student told her. But in real life, you’ll find loads of successful introverted CEOs, like Bill Gates, Brenda Barnes and many others. Studies linking leadership to extraversion are based on modest correlations and, more damaging, leadership is rated on impression rather than results. The personality of a good leader, Cain says, depends more on the situation. According to result-based studies, introverted leaders are good at handling active employees, putting their ideas to use, while extraverted leaders are better at inspiring passive employees, rallying the troops.
But in the business culture these insights are not taken to heart, most likely because the business world is full of extraverted salespeople who have been told and want to believe that their social skills will bring them to the top. This culture, according to the author, is irrational and destructive in that it is based on faith rather than facts. A typical example is the open office plan, which research show is linked to low productivity, high blood pressure and conflicts in the workplace – but it’s still popular because it promotes the extraverted ideal.
Cain even claims that the current Great Recession we are in right now is largely due to those pesky extraverts. That people who try to warn about potential dangers are seen as weak and ungrateful. She quotes from Kurt Eichenwald’s book Conspiracy of Fools about how when in 2001, Vincent Kaminski, a managing director of Enron, just before the bankruptcy, tried to warn about the problems his company was in and what kind of feedback he received,
There have been some complaints, Vince, that you’re not helping people to do transactions,” the president of Enron told him, according to Conspiracy of Fools, a book about the Enron scandal. “Instead, you’re spending all your time acting like cops. We don’t need cops, Vince.”
And a more general quote directly from Kaminski,
“Many times I have been sitting across the table from an energy trader and I would say, ‘Your portfolio will implode if this specific situation happens.’ And the trader would start yelling at me and telling me I’m an idiot, that such a situation would never happen. The problem is that, on one side, you have a rainmaker who is making lots of money for the company and is treated like a superstar, and on the other side you have an introverted nerd. So who do you think wins?”
I think this part of the book is very interesting, and alarming since we know that this culture is alive and well, eagerly waiting for new opportunities with little concern for the risks involved. You have to wonder if maybe places like Harvard Business School should have a quota for introverts. Not to say that introverts are better at this game – America is a great example of entrepreneurship – but it’s not the 1950s anymore, today’s world is complicated and more caution, reflection and analysis is needed.
The Introverted Ideal
It’s understandable that an introvert living in America feels unappreciated and may want to compensate for this in some ways. But reading this book it’s hard not to feel that Cain is replacing the extraverted bias with an introverted one instead. She constantly talks about the virtues of Introversion. How it’s linked to intellectual and artistic achievements, empathy, integrity, conscientiousness, persistence and so forth. Extraverts, on the other hand are generally described as simple folk who are full of energy but without any judgment or sophistication. No, she doesn’t say that but that’s what it sounds like. The title of the book alone gives you a hint of this: extraverts are the ones who can’t stop talking.
Yes, there is a bias against introverts, and yes we should do something about that. But using that as a cover for unbridled self-glorification is not an improvement.
The Biology of Introversion
More interesting is Cain’s foray into the biological and evolutionary roots of Introversion. Like me, she prescribes to the optimal arousal theory which states that variation on this trait is a matter of sensitivity. An introvert is more easily aroused and will for that reason interact with their environment in a way that keeps stimuli at a low level – staying indoors, having just a few friends they know well etc. But what kind of stimuli are we talking about? Psychologist Hans Eysenck was the first to answer this. He claimed that it was a difference in the Ascending Reticular Activating System (ARAS) that made some into introverts and other extraverts. Others, like Jerome Kagan has found a correlation between the Fight-or-Flight response and this trait, although since this is an emotional response others have pointed out that this is more related to Neuroticism. Personally, I think a sensitive ARAS could trigger the fight-or-flight response more easily making this response and indirect measure of introversion/extraversion. Then there is the theory of Reward Sensitivity, the idea that extraverts are more rewarded by stimuli. This theory would essentially make Extraversion the same thing as Sensation Seeking – a trait of thrill-seeking and hedonism.
The author presents a lot of interesting research on this although it feels like they are all finding things that relate to this trait without being able to pinpoint it. Introversion is not fearfulness or aggressiveness as measured by the Figh-or-Flight response, and extraversion is not hedonism either – there are plenty of fearful extraverts and hedonistic introverts. The nature of this trait must be something else. I think Eysenck was right on the money with his ARAS theory – at heart it is a simple matter of attention and wakefulness, although all these system appear to interact in complicated ways.
As for the evolutionary reason for the Extraversion/Introversion trait, Cain mentions one theory by psychologist Kenneth Olson, who claims that Extraversion is the mark of the migrant, the more fearless person. This, Cain (and presumably Olson) mean, would explain why White people are more extraverted than Blacks or Asians. I can buy that Whites score higher on Extraversion than Asians, but are Africans and their descendants in America and elsewhere really that quiet and reclusive? Are African-American kids bullied in the school yard for being nerdy or socially inept and less cool than the other kids? Perhaps the Big Five, a problematic measure for sure, is to blame, or maybe it’s the incompatibility of cultures, but something is off here.
Still, the difference between America and Europe could well be that those who migrated were more extraverted, more sensation seeking and less fearful than those that stayed behind. But generally speaking I think the theory that evolution favored extraverts in a warmer climate and introverts in a cooler climate makes more sense. Cain practically admits that something like this could be a possibility when she mentions Kagan’s impression that high-reactive children (statistically related to Introversion) tend to have blue eyes more often than low-reactive children. Sadly there is hardly any research on this at all, so there is no way to know for sure. But kudos to Cain (and Kagan) for even talking about such “dangerous” notions.
Cain goes on to present various evolutionary theories. Like the simple but sensible idea that introverts add a bit of caution necessary for the group to survive. A purely extroverted group would crash like Wall Street – but with no one to bail them out. Or Jung’s idea that Extraversion represents a strategy of high fertility and high mortality and vice versa. This would be in line with the climatic theory but it also fits with the idea that extraverts are pastoralists who are fighting to protect their cattle and most likely stealing other people’s cattle. Introverts would instead be the agriculturalists who will expose themselves to less risk and have fewer children and think more ahead. Cain mentions an interesting study about a gene variant linked to the trait Novelty Seeking, which correlates to both Extraversion and Sensation Seeking. Among Kenyan pastoralists with this variant were found to be better nourished than Kenyan farmers with the same variant. This may lend evidence to the idea that Extraversion is an adaption to a riskier and more improvised way of living. (This is also relevant to my previous post about the trait of Tribalism.)
A Yay or a Nay?
I have mixed feelings about this book. Cain’s idea of introverts as an oppressed minority, although partly true, feels a bit silly. As an introvert I object to her idea that we are “like women in man’s world.” Women are still oppressed and victimized in numerous ways whereas introverts can become both rich and powerful in any culture without anyone objecting to it.
That aside, she does write well, and although theoretically confusing, this book offers a lot of interesting facts, and she even dares to touch on some sensitive issues. So all things considered, it’s a yay.