June 25, 2014

We haven’t had the Zombie Apocalypse yet (I think), but Susan Cain may have set off the Introvert Apocalypse.  Introverts all over the world have risen up in revolt, demanding validation and basking in the sudden glow of approval and recognition, something we scarcely dreamt of or even imagined before Cain’s exceptional TED talk.  It’s not our problem.  In fact, we’re the solution.  Only our therapists had told us that before.  Well, the good ones, anyway.  Take that you extroverts, you attention-vampires.  Take that, Zombie culture of mass marketing and commercialism!  Take that, culture of personality!  We’re taking back the streets with our culture of CHARACTER!  Mwahahaa!

Susan Cain’s QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT WON’T STOP TALKING has been on the bestseller lists for over two years, and understandably so.  Cain validates a whole group of people who she has claimed are as consistently oppressed and overlooked as women were in the days before feminism.  QUIET is a call to action:  to understand the “introverted” nature of a third to a half of the population, to empower them to assert themselves, and ultimately build a 21st Century “culture of character” as a counterpoint to the extroversion-obsessed culture of personality that arose in the early 20th century with the rise of business, marketing and the gurus of self-promotion from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins.  Ms. Cain has done a lot of good, and

I applaud her for her work and the many ways she is promoting her ideals, such as her website, The Power of Introverts, her TED talk (with almost 8 million views!) and her very active social media presence, including her blog for Psychology Today.

However, on close examination, Ms. Cain makes certain broad assumptions to validate her cultural project.  Most troubling to me were her use of racial stereotypes about Asian Americans, which I will cover in my next blog post.  But the premise underlying her entire book is problematic in itself.  She uses the lay understanding of introversion, but then often invokes studies based on the more narrow clinical definition of introversion.  The result is that she’s deftly able to imbue introversion with a whole host of moral virtues that make it an irresistible exemplar of all that is good with humanity.  Introverts are, in Cain’s estimation, quiet people of thought, conviction, restraint, and “soft-power” leadership, who are sensitive to a fault and compassionate to boot, compared to the brash, foolhardy, self-centered, insensitive, loud unempathic extroverts who make all our lives miserable.  I’m exaggerating only slightly, but you get the idea.  Naturally, anyone with an inkling of introversion, anyone who has ever felt the need for “me-time” or “down-time”, is likely to not only be flattered by her ideas, but also to become a champion of her book and mission.  Anyone who’s ever felt a twinge of insecurity about themselves in relation to others is similarly swept up by her subtle evangelism.  Indeed, I’ve had friends and colleagues tell me Quiet was one of the most important books they’d read in some time.  And only the most overconfident extrovert is excluded from her reach.  It’s a brilliant maneuver.  Flattering your subject is a “soft power” tactic, after all.  It explains why millions have read her book and exclaimed “Why, that’s me!!”  She could practically print up bumper stickers that say “Me Good.  Me Special.  Me Introvert.  Me have a Quiet side.”  Heck, I was ready to slap one of these on my car, but that would have been waaaay too extroverted for me.

The difference between introversion and extraversion is simply “where one gets one’s energy”.  The terms were first used psychologically by Jung, and then made their way into psychological testing and personality models.  People who tend towards the introverted side of the spectrum get their energy from internal thoughts, emotions and experiences, while extroverts get their energy from socializing and outward-focused activities.  Extroverts are characterized as gregarious and sociable, and while introverts prefer solitary activities and are more reserved.  The traits are usually not considered exclusive, but rather exist on a spectrum.  By definition, most people have a mix of both introversion and extroversion, and one could manifest different aspects of one’s personality given different conditions.  Ambiverts lie at the center of the spectrum – they feel almost equally comfortable with either solitary or group oriented activities. 

Cain, however, uses a much broader definition of introversion, ostensibly to make her book more accessible. 

“Adherents of the Big 5 taxonomy often view such characteristics as the tendency to have a cerebral nature, a rich inner life, a strong conscience, some degree of anxiety (especially shyness), and a risk averse nature as belonging to categories quite separate from introversion.  To (contemporary personality psychologists, these traits may fall under (Big 5 personality traits) “openness to experience,” “conscientiousness,” and “neuroticism.”  (p. 269)  Cain goes on to state her definition “encompasses Jungian views of the introvert’s inner world of ‘inexhaustible charm’ and subjective experience; Jerome Kagan’s research on high reactivity and anxiety (see chapters 4 and 5); Elaine Aron’s work on sensory processing sensitivity and its relationship to conscientiousness, intense feeling, inner-directedness, and depth of processing (see chapter 6); and various research on the persistence and concentration that introverts bring to problem-solving, much of it summarized wonderfully in Gerald Matthews work (see chapter 7).”  The research is compelling, but it lumps together quite a bit that certainly finds resonance with a wide swath of people, but deserves some differentiation as well.

She makes introversion a moral virtue rather than a psychological trait.  The problem is that it isn’t inherently more virtuous to be introverted.  An introverted, sensitive person might be brittle, reactive, or judgmental; they may be completely at sea and lost in their inner world; take to drink or drugs to soothe their reactivity; beat their wives; ignore their children; or become mass murderers.  Being at least somewhat inwardly focused and sensitive are no doubt prerequisites for the contemplative life, which I agree is necessary for the cultivation of virtue, but being interior does not guarantee being virtuous.  A might lead to B, B might lead to C but A doesn’t guarantee C.  Virtues arise from cultivation.  Even when we are born with predispositions, they must be brought out actively.  Of course, if a child’s sensitive nature is invalidated by parents or the broader culture, it can turn into shame, fear and withdrawal, instead of virtue.  Cain’s book is certainly a remedy for this latter situation:  by validating sensitivity and giving guidance for managing it, she does a great service. 

Cain makes the seemingly valid case that as a culture, America has gone from valuing internal reflection in the “culture of character” of the 1800s, to the backslapping, hail-fellow-well-met “culture of personality” that arose with business and marketing in the 1900s.  She is thus able to paint a backdrop of a decline of Western civilization into superficiality, herd mentality and braggadocio (exemplified by Tony Robbins and megachurches).  Introversion has understandably been de-emphasized.  But I think the real problem is that we are not intent on cultivating the virtues that come about through internal reflection, and we’re not even certain that some of those values are worthwhile.

(I had other quibbles as well, mostly around how Cain skews her narrative to underscore her points about introversion.  For example, she tells of an arguing couple, he an extrovert and she an introvert.  Her solution to their fight was to encourage the introvert to assert herself and be more angry.  However, even in this example, the couple found resolution in empathy, not in anger.  So Cain emphasizes what for me is the wrong virtue.)

Cain admirably validates introversion.  Her solution, as it were, to the “culture of personality that won’t stop talking” is to create a culture of sensitivity and character mediated by introverts understanding themselves and finally overcoming their “oppression” to assert their “better” way, one that she seems to imply is superior.

To me, this is quite beside the point.  It’s not ultimately about extroversion and introversion.  Introversion is a stand-in for the real values that have always managed to lift us as a society and individuals throughout the years, values that have always been in conflict with power, self-centeredness, exploitation, marginalization and oppression.  The most thorough solution to the problems we face, from gross social and economic injustice, to environmental crises, to all the failures of empathy that hobble us, is to move compassion and wisdom to the head of the class, CEO’s suite, White House, halls of Congress, and all the other strongholds of leadership. 

By any means necessary.  Extroverted or introverted, quiet or talkative.

In summary, Cain’s book is a valuable contribution to the culture, and I do highly recommend it.  But some of her assumptions merit, ironically, introverted reflection as well as extroverted debate.

Tomorrow, I will discuss the chapter that was most problematic for me.  Soft Power:  Asian-Americans and the Extrovert Ideal, which for me fell far short of the understanding, validation, and broad-minded sensitivity which Cain champions.  Introversion can be a lens, but it can also be a filter and distortion.  

SEE:  Susan Cain's Quiet:  Is Asian American Silence Golden?

© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Susan Cain’s Quiet: Is Asian American Silence “Golden”? is a reply by Ravi Chandra M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

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