Introversion is often seen as a negative personality trait in American culture --it is the lonely geek to extroversion's popular prom king and queen. Muhammed Ali, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr. are all extroverts and the types of heroes and role models society holds in its highest esteem.Source: inUse Experience/Flickr Creative Commons
Then there's someone like Steve Wozniak (picture on the left), a low key and relaxed introvert. Wozniak never sought or received the level of attention that his co-founder (in the list above) did. He spent most of his most prolific years squirreled away at home, creating masterpieces all by himself.
Wozniak's story is one of the many covered in the best-selling book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
Though I initially read this book to figure out if I was an introvert, I learned this instead: Everybody can benefit from certain introverted behavior.Source: Joe Wolf/ Flickr Creative Commons
1. Work Alone a.k.a Bring Back the Cubicle: Open plan offices have invaded about 70 percent of workplaces. Even CEOs are trading in corner offices for a nondescript desk right next to the intern, believing this environment will encourage more collaboration and free flowing of ideas. After all, aren't two (or three or four or a thousand) heads better than one?
To answer this question, Cain tells us about Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor who conducted one of the first studies on group brainstorming back in 1963.
In his experiment, he engaged dozens of advertising executives (extroverts) and research scientists (introverts) at a company called 3M to participate in both solitary and group brainstorming sessions. His initial hypothesis was that the chatty executives would benefit from group brainstorms, whereas 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. He compared the results. They were surprising.
"The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own 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. "
Dunnette's findings were first in a long line of research all reaching the same conclusion: Group brainstorming doesn't work.
Which should make us rethink the merits of forcing all employees to sit together as they work.
Because people don't get any personal time or space, they tend to "argue more with their colleagues, 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 productivity.Source: Bryan Ledgard/Flickr Creative Commons
2. Watch and Observe a.k.a. Think Before You Act: In a new situation, introverts have a tendency to scout out their surroundings before making a first move. You might say they are more sensitive, alert and cautious. In other words, they have a "high-reactive" temperament, one of the biological bases for introversion.
The amygdala (emotional brain) in introverts is more reactive and excitable than that of extroverts, which is to say: they are 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.
Extroverts or low-reactive individuals, on the other hand, tend to be risk takers. Great adventurers, including Chuck Yeager (the first pilot to break the sound barrier) are more likely to have low-reactive temperaments, she writes.
Though an introvert's dislike of risk could be construed as negative, scientists have recently discovered there is an upside. Cain writes:
"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 biologial cousins: monkeys. Stephen Suomi, a scientists who studied the behavior of high-reactive monkeys found them 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."
In other words, these monkeys were successful because they took the time to observe and understand their environments before taking action -- a lesson that can be applicable for everybody.Source: Michael/Flickr Creative Commons
3. Blush more a.k.a. Embrace the Embarrassment: Research suggests that high-reactive children tend to feel more guilty or shame after doing something bad. Why is this a good thing?
First, the guilt these kids feel when they do something wrong is so strong that it typically prevents them from making the same mistake again. Cain writes, kids who are high-reactive "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."
Morever, 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; however, they are powerful moral emotions which suggest "humility, modesty, and a desire to avoid aggression and make peace," writes Cain.
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 rather be around someone who cares too much than too little?
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How does it work or not work in your favor?