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Sunday
Jun022013

Insights into Introversion

Last week two somewhat introverted clients separately referred to a book about introversion titled "Quiet," by Susan Cain, a book they found very illuminating. I ordered a copy and finished it yesterday. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who considers themselves an introvert, or who has significant relationships with introverts (which would encompass pretty much everyone). It fleshes out and in places contradicts the stereotypical images we hold of these personality types.

The author begins by tackling the old "nature vs. nurture" paradigm, citing studies of identical vs. fraternal twins that provide support for claiming that 40 - 50% of the extrovert/introvert spectrum is genetically based. But then Cain lays out a different angle from which to view the spectrum: it appears that sensitivity to outside stimuli is a very reliable predictor of one's degree of extro/introversion. This sensitivity was the subject of extensive research by a scientist named Jerome Kagan, who classified infants by their reaction to being startled (a balloon popping) or to strange-looking objects (e.g. clown faces) unfamiliar sounds, or certain unpleasant smells. The infants "...had wildly varying reactions to the new stimuli. About 20% cried lustily and pumped their arms and legs. Kagan called this group "highly reactive." About 40% stayed quiet and placid.... and the remaining 40% fell between these two extremes. In a startling counterintuitive Kagan predicted that the infants in the highly reactive group were most likely to grow into quiet teenagers. He followed the infants through adolescence and was proven correct.

It appears that as they age highly reactive infants begin to unconsciously withdraw from situations in which they are liable to be exposed to disturbing outside stimulus, choosing for example solitary play and preferring quieter settings. Extroverts, on the other hand, gravitate towards situations in which there is a higher level of stimulation. It seems that humans have a "just right" zone of reactivity, where they feel "optimally stimulated" leading high reactors to seek less stimulation and low reactors more.

Cain goes on to reveal a number of other introvert traits that are less commonly associated with the stereotype: difficulty with feeling judged or observed, highly sensitive to light and sound, persistence, capable of feeling emotions exceptionally strongly (whether sorrow, remorse, anger, pity, or joy), superior powers of concentration, and being philosophically, spiritually and/or intellectually oriented, as opposed to materialistic or hedonistic. In addition, introverts tend to be a lot more empathetic with others, have a greater appreciation of and attraction to beauty (whether art, music, or nature), and are generally more creative. Finally, introverts tend to think in a more complex, deliberative manner, looking at more sides of the coin than would an extrovert.

One other particularly interesting section deals with "Free Trait Theory," proposed and refined by the Canadian professor Brian Little. In brief, Free Trait Theory states that introverts are capable of very extroverted behavior, and in fact have relatively little difficulty employing it, if it is in the service of a project or goal that they consider important, for the sake of people they love, or anything they value highly. So people on the introverted end of the spectrum may exhibit a constellation of "typical" behaviors and feelings, but have available to them many others that can be used selectively, but are not "core."

I found this theory personally intriguing: in thinking back on my life I remember that as a child I was often a loner, felt emotions deeply, and was creative and intellectually-oriented: in other words fitting the profile of an introvert. But in high school and college I became determined to be popular and began developing personality and behavioral characteristics that are highly extroverted; to give a few examples: facility with small talk, hedonism, comfort in groups, enjoyment of the spotlight. Now that I am post-middle age I find myself reverting back to introverted behavior that is probably more "natural" to me: enjoyment of alone time, preference for one-on-one as opposed to group interactions, increasing spirituality. And I've transitioned from a glamorous, superficial, "in your face" career as an advertising man to a private, quiet, spiritual and "deep" career as a life consultant.

The book also offers some tips as to how introverts can be happier and more successful in a culture that clearly leans towards extroverts. "The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it's a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers - of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity - to do work you love and that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply. Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you're supposed to. If you're a manager make the most of introverts' strengths - these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mine".

In closing, Cain offers sage counsel: "The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you've been granted. Introverts are offered keys to private gardens full of riches."

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