the cover of the book Quiet by Susan Cain

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

How does your personality impact, well, everything?

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, 2013) is about one of the biggest, most visible differences in personality: what is typically called introversion versus extroversion. Introverts tend to be quieter, more reflective, thinking before speaking, and less comfortable in center stage. They're often happy with their alone time; they need space to recharge after a party. Extroverts, on the other hand, are generally more outgoing and gregarious. Large groups of people energize them instead of drain them.

Why it matters: In the US, our culture lauds extroverts. If you're gregarious and social, you're ahead of the game in school, in business, in politics—everywhere, really. If you're not—well. Let's just say, introverts frequently find life more challenging, because so much is designed to appeal to their opposites. Cain provides numerous examples arguing this case, and dives in deep to help us understand how our unique personality and temperaments can benefit us.

Cain examines questions such as: Is personality heritable? How much depends on your environment and circumstances? Can you change your personality? (If you can—should you?) What are the benefits of being an introvert, or an extrovert? What are the downsides? Do people from different countries have different personalities, generally? How do introverts and extroverts complement each other, and how can we deal with our opposites?

Who should read Quiet?

Read this book if you like learning about how humans work. If you're interested in personality, temperament, psychology, doing things optimally, discovering strengths, or understanding people, you'll probably enjoy this book.

Personally, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite being familiar with introversion versus extroversion, there was still plenty of new and intriguing information in Quiet. I'd read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney in high school, as part of my early forays into the science of human psychology; I'd studied some psychological theories of personality in college and grad school; I was familiar with the problems of being an introvert in an extroverted culture. And there was still new stuff! I especially liked the cross-cultural studies Cain discussed.

Another cool aspect of reading this book, for me, was connecting the research (and researchers) with my own scholarship (e.g., this). For example, Cain described an assessment used by a Harvard psychologist, which we had adapted for use with children and robots; she describes work by researchers whose names I recognized because of other work they had done. It's interesting to see how everything connects!

Diving in: Why is extroversion so popular?

The book begins with a history of how extroversion became so popular. Why is extroversion currently the gold standard of personality? It wasn't always. And if you doubt that it is now, Cain provides many examples of the Culture of Personality, such as how extroversion helps you get ahead in American business culture, and how talk-out-loud people are rated more intelligent and likable (even though there's plenty of evidence that quiet people are easily as competent and creative).

Cain links the change to the industrial revolution. Before, people sought to have good character, emphasizing how one behaved in private. After, they sought personality, and emphasized engaging public-facing behavior. She writes,

"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. The word personality didn't exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of "having a good personality" was not widespread until the twentieth.

… But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. "The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer," Susman famously wrote. "Every American was to become a performing self."" —Susan Cain, Quiet

While reading, I was curious how Cain's insights applied to political campaigns and politicians. That seems, even more than business, to be a personality contest for extroverts… mostly because of the campaigning, since there's plenty of parts of the actual job—especially at more local levels—that introverts could excel at. Do we end up with predominantly extroverted politicians? How does that affect public policy?

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed. Yet studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens. We perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types—even though grade-point averages and SAT and intelligence scores reveal this perception to be inaccurate. —Susan Cain, Quiet

Solitude, practice, and mastery

Cain shared interesting information about solitude, practice, and pursuing mastery. People often feel "evaluation apprehension," i.e., fear of judgment and decreased performance when they have an audience (probably due to higher stress). Quiet people feel this more than extroverts. As such, they are more likely to seek solitude for practice and study, to their benefit.

Practicing and studying alone is one key to success. Cain recounts a study by Anders Ericsson, which found that the best violinists spent double or triple the time practicing in solitude each week, compared to the other violinists. When looking at elite athletes, college students studying, chess grandmasters—whatever the group, studying or practicing along was critical. When people can be in flow, with intense concentration, following intrinsic motivation, they challenge themselves, and improve.

In many fields, Ericsson told me, it's only when you're alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful—they're counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them. Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that's most challenging to you personally. Only when you're alone, Ericsson told me, can you "go directly to the part that's challenging to you. If you want to improve what you're doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you're the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time."" —Susan Cain, Quiet

Working alone can also be a boost to creativity. Although many organizations, companies, and schools are trending toward constant work in teams and open office plans, they may be wrong to do so. For instance, when I was at the MIT Media Lab, there was a strong emphasis on the social catalyst to great ideas—serendipitous encounters and collaboration springing out of casual social interactions. I wonder whether the benefit is more for extroverts than for introverts.

What are the biological origins of personality?

The chapter on physiology was one of my favorites, in part because it had some of the newest information for me. Cain discusses the biological origins of personality and human temperament—nature, or nurture? She relays intriguing theories about the genetic basis of temperament (in large part, evidence from twin studies), how much is heritable (estimates are at 40-50%), versus how much is dependent on one's environment and experiences.

Cain describes some of Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan's research. He observed infants as they grew up and found predictors in their early behavior of their personalities later. Kagan classified infants into two broad groups: high-reactive and low-reactive. High-reactive infants flailed and wailed at unfamiliar stimuli: new sounds, voices, toys, smells—whatever the stimulation, high-reactive infants cried and hollered. Kagan theorized that it was because they had Low-reactive infants, on the other hand, were unfazed. Upon follow-up years later, Kagan found that the high-reactive infants were more likely to have become serious, careful introverts, while low-reactive infants had developed more extroverted personalities.

But! It wasn't a clear-cut case. While high- and low-reactivity reflected some inborn temperament, that wasn't the only factor in developing personality. Further research found that reactivity really reflects our sensitivity to novelty. Our temperaments have all kinds of implications and risk factors, which Cain describes in the book.

I appreciated that in Cain's interview with Kagan, she is careful to keep all the nuance that Kagan describes. Because of course—there is nuance! Too often in science reporting the nuance gets lost, but Cain does it justice here. For instance:

To ask whether it's nature or nurture, says Kagan, is like asking whether a blizzard is caused by temperature or humidity. It's the intricate interaction between the two that makes us who we are. —Susan Cain, Quiet

I appreciate the way these older psychologists speak, the way they tend to be careful about definitions and words. We need that! Definitions after. I was reminded of one of my dissertation committee members (incidentally, also a Harvard psychologist).

One more interesting note: extroverts tend to be better at decoding social skills during social activities; introverts are generally better when observing social interaction. Participating (second person, I-thou) is very different from observing (third person)! Cain writes,

Participation places a very different set of demands on the brain than observing does. It requires a kind of mental multitasking: the ability to process a lot of short-term information at once without becoming distracted or overly stressed. This is just the sort of brain functioning that extroverts tend to be well suited for." —Susan Cain, Quiet

Cross-cultural differences

Cain explores cultural differences in temperament. If you map personality traits across the world, you'll find that Europe and America are more extroverted, while Asia is more introverted. Cain suggests that this may be because the West was initially populated by migrants from the other continents: "world travelers were more extroverted than those who stayed home." I would suggest that the differences are not only rooted in who traveled and who didn't. Richard Nisbett, in his book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why, argues for a large role of the ecology and geography of the East vs. West. (I read Nisbett's book for a cognitive science class in college and discussed it here.)

Regardless of the roots, these personality and culture differences play out big time in the world today. While extroversion is seen as desirable in Western cultures, in many Asian cultures, the opposite is true. One example Cain gives is class participation in colleges. In the West, we seem to prize talking, regardless of what is said; Asian cultures are more likely to call that "talking nonsense" and prefer studiousness. Being quiet is more likely to be seen as wise in China, while not speaking up will get you overlooked in American business culture.

Asian cultures tend to emphasize group harmony; European cultures tend to be more individualistic. Cain describes the Asian mode, which can appear passive or submissive to Westerners, as "relationship honoring," an aspect of basic politeness. Westerners are more likely to initiate conflict.

(Read: Book Review: Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans by Michaeleen Doucleff)

How fixed are personality traits?

Can you change your personality? Is temperament malleable? And if you can change—should you?

We frequently act differently with different groups and in different situations. We can be all out on stage, and also quiet introverts. The consensus in psychology right now is that the answer lies in the middle: we have traits and patterns, and we are also malleable—to an extent. We can act out of character in service of what Cain calls "core personal projects."

How do you know if something is a core personal project, one you can become a psuedo-extrovert in service of? (In Western culture, it is almost always introverts who try to change. In Asia, you might find the opposite.) Cain gives three tips. First, when you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up—and why? Second, what work do you gravitate towards now? Third, what do you envy? Jealousy is a powerful emotion that can tell you what you desire.

(Thinking about changing direction? The book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans is one of the best I've found in life plans and career changes. Read my review!)

Research shows that most introverts can do a good job of faking extroversion, but unconscious body language can, sometimes, give them away. The best fakers are high in the skill "self monitoring", i.e., noticing how to act in a situation based on the social cues of others, and consciously adapting their own behavior to fit. If you're curious about your own skills, Cain includes some questions from researcher Snyder's Self Monitoring Scale that you can use to self evaluate.

If you have to act out of character, find "restorative niches" where you can be your true self. This can be a physical place you go, a time you set aside between other activities, or behavior patterns. Make space for the you that makes you comfortable. Set up compromises. For instance, Cain gives the example of a wife who wanted to go out every Saturday night, while her husband wanted to stay home. They decided to half and half their schedule. Or, say you want to start a company but don't have the connections. Make a plan to attend a set number of networking events each month, and then decline the rest, guilt-free.

Parenting and personality

Cain discusses the relation of parenting and schooling to personality. Mainly, the chapter consisted of anecdotes about parents who realized their kids were introverts and started accommodating that to good effect.

Schools, on the other hand, tend not to accommodate introverts—they're often designed for extroverts, with big classes and lots of group work and group projects. This emphasis on group work, and in accompaniment, leadership skills, in grade school reflects business America's similar infatuation with teams and leadership—despite that, by definition, not everyone can (nor wants to) be a leader! Plus, many people in the real world workforce work independently, not constantly in teams.

(Read: How Schools Zap Kids' Motivation and Mental Health)

Cain writes,

We tend to forget that there's nothing sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organize students this way not because it's the best way to learn, but because it's cost-efficient, and what else would we do with our children while the grown-ups are at work? —Susan Cain, Quiet

We don't have to organize education that way. Cain provides some suggestions for making classrooms more introvert-friendly, and advice for parents on how to choose a school for an introverted child. Alas, Cain does not suggest homeschooling, charter schools, or any other alternatives to mainstream education, even though these options can work very well for introverts. Like me—read how I went from homeschooling to college.

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