Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Book review: "Quiet" by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Susan Cain
Crown (2012)

People who got to know my from my blog are usually surprised when they meet me in person.

I like to write, but I am not very talkative. I try to avoid group activities. I don't like to draw attention to myself, and I don't like crowds. I'm noise-sensitive. I prefer reading over parties, and if you find me at a party, I'm the one in the corner watching the others. My school memory contains a long series of teachers telling me to speak up more often. My Myers Briggs type is INTJ, with 100% on the introvert scale.

I am, in short, the sort of person that Susan Cain's book is about. So how could I not read it.

Susan Cain, a self-confessed introvert herself, has collected results of scientific studies on introversion and extroversion, from neurology, psychology and sociology. As it has recently been the case with many personality traits, evidence is building up that they are to some extend genetic, but the strength of expression also depends on environmental influences. This also means that while we can't change our genetic predisposition, we have some flexibility to deal with it.

Cain writes studies show that one third to one half (depending on the study) of all adults in North America are introverts, yet the American culture has glorified the extrovert ideal. That is, so Cain argues, a disadvantage not only for the introverts, many of whom end up pretending to be something they're not, but also for society as a whole because we're not making good use of many skilled people. Cain discusses studies that have shown that in the right circumstances, thinking brings better results alone than in groups, and that some leadership roles call for extroverts, and some for introverts. Extroverts do better, it turns out, when motivating others is relevant. Introverts do better when listening is important.
"[E]xtrovert leaders enhance group performance when employees are passive, but... introvert leaders are more effective with proactive employees."

She covers a lot of ground in her book, and draws upon many examples, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Moses, just to mention a few.
"We don't ask why God chose as his prophet [Moses,] a stutterer with a public speaking phobia. But we should. The book of Exodus is short on explication, but its stories suggest that introversion plays the yin to the yang of extroversion."

In her book, Cain discusses for example evidence from Jerome Kagan's research that shows introversion is linked to a physiological trait called "high reactivity." I used to say I have an input filter problem. Amazingly enough, it turns out that's pretty much exactly what Kagan's research, and the research of those who have followed up on his original intuition, has shown. "High reactivity" is a higher activity in a brain region called the amygdala when confronted with something new. Infants who show high reactivity are more likely to grow up to be introverted adults; they need less stimulation than extroverts.

Later in the book, Cain also discusses another trait called "reward sensitivity," basically how active the brain's reward circuit is, and how much attention we thus pay to prospects of rewards:
"[E]xtroverts seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of the [limbic system of the brain]. In fact, some scientists are starting to explore the idea that reward-sensitivity is not only an interesting feature of extroversion; it is what makes an extrovert an extrovert. Extroverts, in other words, are characterized by their tendency to seek rewards."

Cains book is very carefully written. She points out repeatedly that no two people are alike and the reader might not feel well classified in all terms she discusses. Introversion is for example correlated with agreeableness and conflict aversion. As you might have guessed, I'm not a very agreeable person ;o) Cain also explains that it's not uncommon for people to "act out of character" if the situation calls for it, but too much of it can lead to a burnout. Professor Brian Little calls it the "Free Trait Theory":
"Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly."

That would be me organizing a conference.

Cain's argument is also very balanced. Her perspective is that there's not one best way of doing things, but that introverts and extroverts both bring different strengths that we are not all presently supporting and using very well. She seems to have taken particular offense in teachers using group tables, something I too recall very well from my schooldays. She argues for seeking a better way to do things, based on recent insights about how differently people's brains work
"We should actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people's natural strengths and temperaments. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures."

Cain is also careful to point out that extroversion and introversion are partly cultural, and she discusses to some extend the tension of Asian-Americans. She doesn't go into the cultural aspects very much though. I guess it's not very well understood.

The book is well referenced, she does mention if a research result is still under discussion or maybe even controversial. She doesn't merely report, but also brings in her own opinion. The book is flawlessly written. For the first two of three parts I found it to be the best non-fiction book I've read lately. It taught me a lot of things I hadn't previously known, without drowning me in irrelevant details. Then I came to the last part of the book.

The last part of the book gives the reader advice how to manage their personal lives and relationships. It's about the couples Greg and Emily, and John and Jennifer. It's about Joyce and her daughter Isabel, and about Sarah and her daughter Ava. I would have much preferred Susan Cain's book without the self-help part. Not only because I'm happily married to another introvert and wasn't looking for advice, but because for 200 pages I was thinking to send a copy of her book to some of my extrovert friends, just so they understand. Now I'd risk they think I'm suggesting they need help with their marriage or parenting.

In summary: If you are, as I, following research in neurology and psychology only peripherally, Susan Cain's book is likely to teach you something about yourself, and your friends and relatives. It is a well written, well researched, and well argued book that studies both the powers and weaknesses of introversion and extroversion, and addresses the question how much of these personality traits are nature and how much nurture. I would recommend this book to everybody who has ever felt they have trouble understanding others or themselves.

You can read an excerpt of Susan Cain's book here, and you can watch her TED talk here.


  1. "My Myers Briggs type is INTJ, with 100% on the introvert scale."

    So am I, more like 80% though, and sometimes almost half of the time INFJ.

    I have therefore always found it difficult to accept there are only 16 human personality "types".

    Thanks for the heads up on this book, Bee! Definitely one I would like to read.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Yes, I'm not a big fan of all these personality classifications. They're obviously vast oversimplifications. Spherical cows ;o) Best,


  3. I'm an XNTJ so used to being it both ways, but sure - too many brassy people running around and they cause most of the trouble. Salesmen - goading people to buy what they don't really want or need, politicians, etc ...

    BTW, the numbered types represent pure poles (just note the "X" which already makes it 81 instead of 16!) and all those other intermediate states, even then a simplification based on a certain scaling ...

    Bee, I'm disappointed you switched to that IMHO horrible "Craptcha" was imposed difficulties to many, the former (ordinary blogger) system was easier to use, FWIW. A minor point though compared to the blog value.

  4. Neil,

    I'm not a friend of captcha, but the other options are a) getting drowned in spam. b) turning on comment moderation, which means it will take forever till your comment appears. If it does at all, because I have better things to do that moderating comments. c) subcription only.

    I also think it's not a bad thing that people have to ask themselves if they really want to post something. Best,


  5. Hi, Bee. I am JFGH from Spain again.
    I don't like categories, but it is true what you say. Introverts find problems in this world, although, thanks to internet, we can find similar beings like us. If you believe what tests say, I am INTP, although I have some ENTP features when I interact with similar beings.
    I read some about Psychology and these topics, but at last, what I think is that interactions are important, specially if you are too solitary. I tend to speak a lot loud only when I find a fascinating topic or a great discussion group. No more, no less. You see, there are more noise than useful information in the internet, in spite of the filtering or your selection.
    Introverts are usually friendly matched with people who respects them and who are not shallow. We like uncommon stuff, we are usually dreamers and inner sense focused and we need people who figure out our deep inside.
    Anyway, nice great post again Bee Sabine. I am happy to follow your blog. You are doing great with it!

  6. Oh ... Sure, some kind of CM is good. What I meant, Bee: there already was a Blogger CM system of having to type phrases, but they were easier to see. Was it failing you? That's all I have, but I have a lot less traffic.

    Also, I don't see a checkbox for emailing replies, anymore. That would be nice.

  7. Neil,

    Google updates the software from time to time. I have nothing whatsoever to do with that. I just notice when it doesn't work well, then more spam goes through. The options that I can chose from are the ones that I mentioned previously. Best,


  8. I also have a INTJ Myers Briggs type with 100% on the introvert scale.

    Thank you for reviewing this book - it's been on my radar for a while, but I'll definitely check it out now.

    As for the last part - that's unfortunate. Perhaps there was pressure to write in some self-help stuff to help with sales as it seems like it was just tacked on at the end and a completely extroverted thing to do.

    You could always send the book to friends and tell them to ignore the last part.

  9. It certainly always amazes me in the age of the Internet how people's on line personas appear so completely different from their in person persona. I really don't think that is so good. BTW, am an Introvert in person also.

  10. Internet reveals your true character so I guess deep down you are an extrovert:-)

    By nature humans are social beings; Introversion more than often is just a protection mechanism which people use to arm themselves against other people. This is due to the unnatural way human societies have been developed over the years. They are antagonistic, self-centered and full of mistrust.

  11. If you do not like being alone, it is because you are in poor company. "The voices in my head never stop for breath" works especially well with psycholgists.

    I don't have a license to kill, but I do have a learner's permit. Talk to somebody else about basketball - the game that scores triple digits for both teams one, two, or three points at a time.

  12. If you do not like being alone, it is because you are in poor company. "The voices in my head never stop for breath" works especially well with psycholgists.

    I don't have a license to kill, but I do have a learner's permit. Talk to somebody else about basketball - the game that scores triple digits for both teams one, two, or three points at a time.

  13. I know Bee that you do not place much emphasis n this time of model, but looking at different perspectives does help one to better understand ones attributes.

    I have changed some too. From Idealist Portrait of the Counselor (INFJ) to Keirsey's Rational Mastermind.

    Spend some time around scientists and see what happens.:) I will probably look for this book to read.


  14. Oh Bee you might find the read on Psychopathy enlightening as well.

    As you can see development of such psychological models do extend them self to "diagnosing people" that are hired as to whether they are a good fit for an organization. Such classifications without the proper tools for understanding the full depth can be a dangerous thing when pointing toward people and saying they are such and such.

    So the truth one is after in science is as necessary in finding the truth about self.


  15. Extroverts seek power over others and the artifical limelight.

    Introverts seek knowledge and natural illumination.

    "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift" -
    Albert Einstein

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  17. Hi Giotis,

    You should really read the book because you're talking about exactly the introvert-extrovert stereotype that Cain explains very well is wrong, but unfortunately wide spread. (It's also not the way the words are used on the personality tests btw).

    Introversion is not a protection against other people. It has, a priori, nothing to do with people in particular. It's a protection against new information. Some people's brains are more easily excitable, literally, than others. The information that's difficult to deal with is not, I should add, of the academic type, which is usually fairly low in information density. (Not so surprising, a lot of academics are introvers.) The information that's difficult to deal with is mostly sensory information. And, since we're as humans primed to take note of other humans, human interactions are particularly demanding and take up a lot of brain-energy.

    This has also a priori nothing to do with being self-centered or mistrusting. Since Cain said it really well, let me quote a paragraph from her book:

    "Consider that the simplest social interaction between two people requires performing an astonishing array of tasks; interpreting what the other person is saying; reading body language and facial expressions; smoothly taking turns talking and listening; responding to what the other person said; assessing whether you're being understood; determining whether you're well received, and, if not, figuring out how to improve or remove yourself from the situation. Think of what it takes to juggle all this at once! And that's just a one-on-one conversation. Now imagine the multi-tasking required in a group setting...

    So when introverts assume the observer role, as when they write novels, or contemplate unified field theory- or fall quite at dinner parties-they're not demonstrating a failure of will or lack of energy. They're simply doing what they're constitutionally suited for."

    Of course she also addresses the online-presence of people.

    "[Introverts] welcome the chance to communicate digitally. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice."

    Some time ago, I asked a colleague if he'd be interested to write a guest post for this blog. "I'm not an extrovert" he said, implying he thinks I am extroverted. I thought at that time, he got something really wrong. Not that I care very much what people think how I like to spend my time, but it seemed really funny to me that he made such a connection. Now thanks to Cains book, I know pretty well where this misunderstanding comes from. Best,


  18. Hi Alyssa,

    Yes, in fact, I thought the same thing. Maybe it was the publisher's idea. I don't know. I'll be curious to hear what you think of the book! Best,


  19. Hi Robert,

    You might be interested to hear that Cain pretty much claims the 2008 financial crisis was caused by extroverts not listening to introverts. I left this out because, though this might be part of the truth, it's far too simple an explanation to be right. Best,


  20. Hi Plato,

    Yes, an interesting point, personality types can change over time. There isn't much in the book about this though. I've taken the Myers-Briggs test twice, once 5 years ago and again a few days ago. The result is the same, yet it's become more pronounced. Not sure what to make of this. Interesting that you say yours has changed. Best,


  21. Hi Eric,

    I have found there are few people who online act very differently from how they are in person. It's just that, since online the picture is often incomplete, you might draw wrong conclusions. I know for example a guy who only posts things to his feed that really upset him. You might come to conclude he's the most grumpy person on the planet. But he just posts what upsets him, and then he's done with it. Otherwise he's a cheerful person. That people believe I must be very social because I like to write is another such example of drawing the wrong conclusion. There are of course the cases of people who have difficulties with impulse control if certain clues are lacking, is that what you mean? I don't know how common this really is. Best,


  22. I didn't say that this kind of introverts are self-centered. On the contrary I said that they perceive the social environment as such and raise their protective barriers against a hostile environment because the feel vulnerable.

    Also I didn't say that all introverts are like this but some of them are. Others are just bored or they feel intellectual superior. In this case their isolation could be interpreted as some form of elitism. In contrast some introverts feel inferior and they close to themselves to hide that.

    Biological factors like those you described are also important and prevailing to some people but I don't think we should put them all in the same category. There are all kinds of people...

  23. Hi Giotis,

    Yes, you are right, there are all kinds of people, and there are no simple answers to anybody's behavior. I think however that the research that Cain wrote about is interesting and has explanatory power to at least some aspects. Best,


  24. Hi Bee,

    Well it seems you’ve given me yet another book for my eReader, and then of course as being an introvert myself how could I pass this one by. I’m even more intrigued as you’ve assigned this work such a high ranking, with saying it being flawlessly written. I find it strange how many people connect you with being an extrovert with writing this blog, since from my first discovering it you being an introvert was one thing about you that seemed pretty obvious, along with the analytical part of your character of course. Then again based on my own experience, I don’t find many extroverts to be much good at being analytical, as more often concerned primarily with projection, rather than reflection and even with what they do manage in such respect is often largely superficial. So as for sending the extroverts this book so they might have you better understood, I think it would be like as reminded in the old idiom to be like casting your pearls before swine. In having said that I wouldn’t have this to be taken as a rebuke of the extroverts, just simply to realize that in terms of what appeals to their reward reflex I don’t think it would be something they’d find to be of much value.

    ” When from our better selves we have too long
    Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
    Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
    How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;”

    -William Wordsworth, “Summer Vacation”



    The one thing about the new blogger comment protocol I do find as somewhat frustrating is it no longer allows one to have follow-up comments sent to your email.

  25. If I uderstand Cain's thesis correctly (key issue is desire to increase or limit external stimuli), there is an interesting real-life example from my family.

    My father (now 94 and still playing golf, albeit ever more slowly) has always loved parades - the loud music, the colors, the coordinated motions, the crowd, etc.

    For me the situation was definitely different. I was fascinated by the spectacle and commotion, but after about 30 minutes I usually had more than enough.

    The same reactions to this particular type of stimuli have remained constant for both of us over a period of at least 50 years.

    Perhaps the response to a parade: "love'em" or "thanks but no", might be a quick way to indicate extroversion vs introversion?

  26. Hi Robert,

    Yes, you understand correctly. Though it's not so much Cain's thesis as that of the scientists whose studies she is reporting about.

    A parade might in principle be a good test. In practice, it might be difficult to find one when you need it, and it might not be a very controlled environment. A less dramatic test that Cain mentioned in the book was lemon juice (introverts react more strongly) or photos with unfamiliar faces under fMRI (dito). There were other expamples. For the infants, they held a cotton swap with alcohol under their nose (dito). Best,


  27. I've finally had the time to work though last months Time Magazines and found that they had an article on the topic in the Feb 6th issue:

    The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)

    The article is pretty good, it's not a review of Cain's book, but mentions her book. Unfortunately, it's subscription only. Best,


  28. Hi Bee,

    Well I’m now reading the book and find your review of Cain’s work spot on and also having me to feel better about myself in being an introvert. Moreover it has me now confident that my thoughts regarding corporate groupthink, as being not only useless, yet counterproductive, to be more than just an introvert’s attempt at justify themselves in resisting extroversion. However having said that, Cain does draw one exception to this otherwise incorrect methodology regarding the fostering and maximization of creativity, with that relating to online (electronic) collaboration. As finding this being a most curious exception I thought I’d share some of what Cain writes in such regard with others here. After what I’ve noted here Cain continues with some explanation, which I find to be both thought provoking and yet leaving room to wonder what a more complete understanding of this might hold for the future.

    “The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group the better it performs. The same is true in academic research—professors who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce better research that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.”

    This shouldn’t surprise us ; as we’ve said, it was the curious power of the electronic collaboration that contributed to the New Groupthink in the first place. What created Linux, or Wikipedia, if not a gigantic electronic brainstorming session? But we’re so impressed by the power of online collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue all group work at the expense of solo thought. We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaboration will be replicated in the face-to-face world.”

    -Susan Cain, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking”, Crown (2012)



  29. With everyword i eyes started feels like every word was written about me!


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