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3 Lessons Everyone Should Learn From Introverts

The research is clear: We could all benefit from a little more quiet.

Introversion is often perceived to be a negative personality trait. Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all extroverts, and the type of heroic role models many Americans hold in high esteem.

Steve Wozniak, a low-key and relaxed introvert, never sought or received the attention of Jobs, with whom he cofounded Apple. He spent most of his most productive years squirreled away at home, creating masterpieces all by himself.

Corepics VOF/Shutterstock
Source: Corepics VOF/Shutterstock

Wozniak's story is one of many covered in the best-selling book by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. It teaches us that everybody can benefit from fostering certain introverted behavior. Whether you're an introvert or extrovert, here are 3 ways to hone your quiet side:

1. Work alone (a.k.a., Bring back the cubicle).

Open floor plan offices now comprise 70 percent of workplaces. Even CEOs are trading in corner offices for a nondescript desk right next to the interns, believing this environment encourages more collaboration and the free flowing of ideas. After all, aren't two, or three or four or a thousand, heads better than one?

Cain highlights the work of Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor who conducted one of the first studies on group brainstorming in 1963. He engaged dozens of advertising executives (mostly extroverts) and research scientists (mostly introverts) at the conglomerate 3M to participate in both solitary and group brainstorming sessions. His initial hypothesis was that the chatty executives would benefit from group brainstorms, while the quiet researchers would do better in solo environments.

First, he split everyone up into smaller groups and provided a problem to solve by group brainstorm. Then he gave everyone individual problems to solve and compared the results. Cain writes:

"The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own rather than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumed introverted research scientists."

Joe Wolf/ Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Joe Wolf/ Flickr Creative Commons

We should rethink the merits of forcing all employees to sit together as they work. Dunnette's findings were first in a long line of research all reaching the same conclusion: Group brainstorming doesn't work. "Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory," Cain writes. They also tend to be related to high staff turnover and make for sick, hostile, and unmotivated employees.

Because people don't get any personal time or space, they tend to "argue more with their colleagues, and worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens." Not surprisingly, this excessive stimulation and interruption becomes a huge barrier to learning, focusing, and being productive.

2. Watch and observe (a.k.a., Think before you act).

In a new situation, introverts tend to scout out their surroundings before making a first move. They are more sensitive, alert, and cautious because they have a "high-reactive" temperament, one of the biological bases for introversion.

In introverts, the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions, is more reactive and excitable than in extroverts, so they can be overstimulated by new things. Consequently, this "aversion to novelty causes them to spend time inside the familiar—and intellectually fertile—environment of their own heads," according to Cain. Which is perhaps why many artists, writers, scientists and thinkers are high-reactive.

On the other hand, extroverts, or low-reactive individuals, tend to be risk takers. Great adventurers like Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, tend to have low-reactive temperaments, Cain writes.

Though an introvert's risk aversion could be construed as a negative, Cain reports, scientists have discovered benefits:

"High-reactive kids who enjoy good parenting, child care, and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers... Often they're exceedingly empathetic, caring, and cooperative. They work well with others. They are kind, conscientious, and easily disturbed by cruelty, injustice, and irresponsibility. They are successful at the things that matter to them."

These discoveries were made in part thanks to our biological cousins: Monkeys. Researcher Stephen Suomi found high-reactive monkeys to be better suited than their counterparts at social tasks, such as making playmates and conflict resolution. In fact, introverted monkeys often became leaders of their group.

Suomi speculates that "these high-reactive monkeys owed their success to the enormous amounts of time they spent watching rather than participating in the group, absorbing on a deep level the laws of social dynamics." The monkeys were successful because they took time to observe and understand their environment before taking action. This lesson is applicable for all of us.

3. Blush more (a.k.a., Embrace embarrassment).

Research suggests that high-reactive children tend to feel more guilt or shame after doing something bad. The guilt these kids feel when they do something wrong is so strong that it typically prevents them from making the same mistake again. Kids who are high-reactive, Cain writes, "are less likely than their peers to cheat or break the rules, even when they think they can't be caught... They're more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits, such as empathy."

Moreover, feeling guilt can "promote future altruism, personal responsibility, adaptive behavior in school, and harmonious, competent and prosocial relationships with parents, teachers, and friends."

Guilt, shame, or embarrassment are not feelings most people strive for; they are, however, moral emotions which, according to Cain, suggest "humility, modesty, and a desire to avoid aggression and make peace."

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who studies positive emotions, traced human embarrassment back to primates. He discovered that after primates fought, they would make up by using gestures indicating their shame. These gestures were similar to those of humans, such as "looking away, which acknowledges wrongdoing and the intention to stop; lowering the head, which shrinks one's size; and pressing the lips together, a sign of inhibition." According to Keltner, "Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another." After all, wouldn't you prefer to be around someone who cares too much rather than too little?

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How does it work (or not work) in your favor?

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