Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

I have mixed views about Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Cain makes an important point that many of our environments, social structures and workplaces are unsuited to “introverts” (and possibly even humans in general). We could design more productive and inclusive workplaces, schools and organisations if we considered the spectrum of personality types who will work, live and learn in them.

On the flip side, Cain expanded the definition of introversion to include a host of positive attributes that wouldn’t normally (at least by me) be grouped with introversion. This led to a degree of cheer-leading for introverts that was somewhat off-putting (despite my own introverted nature). The last couple of chapters of the book also fall into evidence-free story-telling.

But to the good first. I enjoyed Cain’s filleting of open workplaces. Open plan workplaces or “activity-based working” are often dressed up as a means to seed creativity and collaboration, but they are more accurately described as a shift to lower floor space per employee to save costs. The evidence for increased collaboration or creativity is scant. Innovation may occur in teams, but it also requires quiet.

Cain suggests the trend toward these open workspaces is built on a mis-understanding of some of the classic examples of collaboration associated with the rise of the web. Yes, Linux and Wikipedia were built by teams, not individuals. But these people did not share offices or even countries. Regardless, the collaboration ideal was extended to our physical spaces.

Cain catalogues the research on the poor productivity in open workplaces. I had seen the following research before, but it is a great case study:

… DeMarco and his colleague Timothy Lister devised a study called the Coding War Games. The purpose of the games was to identify the characteristics of the best and worst computer programmers; more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.

When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10:1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter—such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work—had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below—even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

One pillar to the case for quiet spaces comes from how we build expertise. Work by Anders Ericsson, of deliberate practice fame, has identified studying alone or practicing in solitude as the prime way to gain skill. You need to be alone to engage in deliberate practice, as this allows you to go directly to the part that is challenging you. Open workspaces are a poor place to tackle challenging problems.

Cain also includes some interesting material on the extension of this “collaborative” space design to schooling. Children are increasingly schooled in pods as part of a shift to “cooperative learning”. We’re preparing children for the sub-optimal workplaces they are about to enter by replicating that sub-optimal environment in their schools. What is particularly problematic is that there is little opportunity in school to opt out, whereas adults have more opportunity to choose their workplace and shape their environment.

One thread in the book, which features in the opening, is that society is in the thrall of an “extrovert ideal”. Cain argues that we have become more interested in how people perceive us than the content of our character – a shift from a culture of character to one of personality. Self-help guides used to focus on concepts such as citizenship, duty, work, honour, morals, manners and integrity. They now focus on being magnetic, fascinating, attractive and energetic. Being quiet is now a problem.

This is particularly reflected in what we look for in leaders. People who talk more tend to be rated as more intelligent. Good presenters often get ahead. But talking more or presentation skills might be weak indicators of the actual capabilities you want in your leaders.

Cain briefly touches on the genetics of introversion. Unsurprisingly, as for every behavioural trait, introversion is heritable. Around 40% to 50% of the variation in introversion is due to differences in genes. Cain also hints at cross-racial differences in introversion, noting that the waves of emigrants to a new continent would have the more extroverted traits of world travellers.

The least satisfying element to the book was Cain’s definition of introvert. At times, Cain’s definition seemed to expand to capture all that is good. From a typical definition of being reserved, reflective, or interested in one’s own mental self, her definition includes everyone who is thoughtful, cerebral, willing to listen to others, and immune to the pull of wealth and fame. Introverts are needed to save us from climate change. (“Without people like you, we will, quite literally, drown.”) Extroverts, in contrast, are thoughtless risk seekers with no self control. Extroverts caused the global financial crisis.

Cain does note her broad definition of introvert in an appendix to the book, A Note on the Words Introvert and Extrovert. It would have helped me a lot if this note had been at the front (or if I had realised it was there before reading the book). There she clarifies that she is not using the standard definition of introversion captured by the well-established Big 5 taxonomy. She states that she is extending introversion to include people with “a cerebral nature, a rich inner life, a strong conscience, some degree of anxiety (especially shyness), and a risk-averse nature”.

These traits would normally be considered to relate to the other Big 5 traits of openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. This is particularly confusing, as in parts of the book she talks about the other big 5 traits as separate concepts. Cain’s definition also appears broader than that used by Carl Jung and in the Myer-Briggs test, which seem to be her foundation. (Although never explicitly endorsed, I get the feeling that Cain is a Myer-Briggs advocate.)

Once the definition is expanded to include these other dimensions, it is hard to see how one third of the population can be described as introverts. It also means that many parts of the book feel more an ode to conscientiousness, and possibly even intelligence, than to introversion.

This was most stark in the chapter on the differences between Asians and Americans. Cain attributes Asian achievement – such as high scores in international tests and their superior academic results – to the higher introversion of Asians. There is not one mention of the higher conscientiousness of East Asians, nor their higher IQ scores. Instead these seem bundled into the introvert basket of traits.

I also struggled with the final two substantive chapters of the book – on relationships and children. There Cain shifts from an approach generally built on research to one that is little more than storytelling. The chapters are full of unsourced statements or recommendations. For instance, she recommends that you gradually introduce your kids to new situations. This supposedly produces more confident kids than the alternatives of overprotection or pushing too hard, contrasting somewhat with the established literature on the lack of effect of parents.

*Disclosure of interest: Here are the percentiles for the last time I did a Big 5 test. I’m not far from Cain’s introvert ideal (possibly a touch low on neuroticism):

Openness: 88
Conscientiousness: 80
Extroversion: 29
Agreeableness: 51
Neuroticism: 48

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