I’ve always been a little bit of an introvert. I’ve never really enjoyed parties. I’m not very socially gifted in a group setting, and I’d rather talk one on one, or spend some time alone with a good book. I enjoy solitude, it helps me recharge.
What image popped up in your mind when you read the word “introvert” above? Did you see a skinny kid, with a pocket protector, who goes mute anytime an attractive girl comes within a twenty foot radius? Maybe a mousy, pale-skinned woman with glasses who won’t look anyone in the eye when she talks to them? That’s how I would have answered before reading Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
The truth is, introverts and extroverts come in all shapes and sizes. There have been many extremely successful public personalities who were introverted, notably Eleanor Roosevelt, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, W. B. Yeats, Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, J. M. Barrie, George Orwell, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Charles Schulz, Steven Spielberg, Larry Page, and J. K. Rowling.
According to Cain’s research, the reverence for extroverts in the U.S. has really only been around since the early 1900’s when the population began to shift from country life to city life. Prior to this, there was a much higher value placed on character than personality. Part of this shift can be laid at the feet of Dale Carnegie who transformed himself from a shy hesitant speaker into a confident go-getter, then left Missouri for New York to teach the rest of the country what he had learned. Right around this same time, big business began to ramp up and suddenly the outgoing salesman type who could navigate every social situation became the ideal.
From a physiological standpoint, Cain has found that introverts are literally more sensitive than extroverts. Science has proven that being “Thick Skinned” is a physical reality in extroverts. They feel less, and react less to the stimuli around them. As a consequence they are by nature less nervous, sweat less, and just plain fail to notice many of the things that can undermine the confidence of more sensitive introverts. Interestingly sociopaths are the thickest skinned of all, which prompted me to think of sensitivity as a spectrum, with extreme introverts on one end and sociopaths on the other. It amused me to think that extroverts, who I always felt a little inferior to, are much closer to the sociopaths on this scale than I will ever be.
Another important finding is that working in groups has higher risks than having people work individually on a problem. Why? Cain cites several studies showing that we are horribly susceptible to the influence of others. So much so that our very perceptions can be changed by their opinions. When someone, often an extrovert, presents a strong opinion in a group setting, the rest of the group can be made to see things that are not there. In one study, people’s brains were scanned as they looked at photographs of objects and decided whether they could be rotated to match a second shape. When the participants worked on their own, they only got the answers wrong 13.8% of the time, but when they discussed the possible answers with a group, containing a confederate planted to lead them confidently in the wrong direction, they missed 41% of the problems. Even stranger, the brain scans of those being influenced did not show a decision to choose the wrong answers. Their neural activity, prior to answering, was in their vision centers, indicating that they were so strongly influenced by the group discussion that they literally saw something different. I don’t know about you, but that scares me. Think of all of the group discussion threads you have seen on Facebook and what this means in terms of altered perception of those in the group.
So what does this mean for you?
First, if you place yourself on the introverted end of the spectrum, don’t feel bad. Introversion was long valued more highly than extroversion and it is likely that the current popularity of extroverts won’t last forever. Plus there is a bias inherent in extroversion. People who don’t mind being seen and heard are much more likely to show up in visual and social media offering opinions and predictions that cater to the moment, whereas the work of introverts typically comes to light after it has made a real difference in the larger world.
Second, awareness is key. When you are exposed to a group discussion you should take a step back and examine your position carefully, particularly if it has been changed by the arguments of a single outspoken member of the group. Look more closely at the information they presented. Does it still make sense? Do the facts support their opinion? Evaluate these things for yourself, not by engaging in discussion. If you are still convinced, then it is probably a valid argument and not something that has been forced upon you by an extroverted personality.
There was a lot more interesting information in this book and I encourage you to pick it up if this has piqued you interest. If you do, I’d love to hear what takeaways you had. Let me know in the comments.