Thursday, August 29, 2013

Susan Cain On Introverts

Susan Cain’s nonfiction book Quiet provides a wonderful dose of self-esteem for introverts. Writing from a business perspective, she points out how introverts often make better leaders and CEO’s. And the range of her analysis goes much wider, into the realms of childhood, happiness and so much more. Steeped in psychological research, her arguments reveal a lot about the human brain and behavior, leading to all kinds of acute philosophical questions.

I think the most important, and controversial, point you can derive from Cain’s book is this: our culture has a major ethical problem due to its bias in favor of silver-tongued, magnetic social butterflies. Cain strongly argues this polemical claim. She writes that the most efficient and healthiest system gives parity to both personality types:

The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures (p.93)

Why the ethical problem with extrovert favoritism? For one thing, extroverts have high “reward sensitivity,” which means money or status can heavily drive them. They are more likely to focus on ends and ignore the means. This is established at the level of brain chemistry. Some people are wired for a task-oriented dopamine ride.

Cain links reward sensitivity to economic cataclysms, like stock market crashes:

Reward sensitivity on overdrive gets people into all kinds of trouble. We can get so excited about the prospect of juicy prizes, like winning big in the stock market, that we take outsized risks and ignore obvious warning signals. (p.157)

She spotlights the 2008 crash explicitly. The cause? Hyper-extroverts took over the reins, squeezing out needed caution. She presents the view of Boykin Curry that “forceful extroverts ... caused the global financial crash”:

"People with certain personality types got control of capital and institutions and power," Curry told me. "And people who are congenitally more cautious and introverted and statistical in their thinking became discredited and pushed aside.” (p.164).

Introverts, who are careful, deliberate thinkers, actually shine in the investment world: “[A] study of sixty-four traders at an investment bank found that the highest-performing traders tended to be emotionally stable introverts” (p.163)

Urgent ethical questions permeate the economic and leadership decisions in our country. Such questions require careful reflection to answer with proper diligence. Extroverts who let their reward sensitivity run free are not very likely to engage in the necessary careful reflection. The danger of this tendency is exacerbated by our consumerist society’s worship of reward sensitivity. It is considered the modus vivendi of the materialistic lifestyle.

Introverts are less prone to focus on the goal and more likely to evaluate the hidden (ethical) effects of the means. Introvert and and extrovert brains actually operate differently:

Introverts’ reflectiveness uses up a lot of cognitive capacity, according to Joseph Newman [psychologist, University of Wisconsin]. On any given task, he says, “if we have 100 percent cognitive capacity, an introvert may have only 75 percent on task, whereas an extrovert may have 90 percent on task.” ... Extroverts appear to allocate most of their cognitive capacity to the goal at hand, while introverts use up capacity by monitoring how the task is going.” (p.168)

Metaphorically speaking, if low-quality planks are being laid in the foundation of project, introverts will take notice. Extroverts will tend to ignore this factor and focus on snatching the trophy. As long as they rise high enough to snatch that trophy, it doesn’t matter if the whole thing collapses afterward.

Another factor: Cain finds association between introverts and “high sensitivity.” People with this trait:

tend to be keen observers who look before they leap ... they process information about their environments--both physical and emotional--unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss--another person’s shift in mood, say, or a light bulb burning a touch too brightly. (p.136)

They also are sometimes highly empathic. “It’s as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences.” (p.136-7)

Do we want empathic people with strong consciences in charge, or those who are less so? Those who instead focus on attaining the glowing numbers that stock markets idealize?

Note that "college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago" and "the study’s authors "speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness." (p.141)

Hyper-competitiveness. Right. That would mean focusing on money while ignoring whether your tactics are ethical or not.

Cain makes it clear, over and over, that a materialistic society, one that aggrandizes extroversion, is going to dig a lot of moral ditches. And a lot of skeletons are going to be buried in those ditches.

Highly reactive introverts are less likely to get away with lying, because they tend to sweat. However, “low-reactive extroverts sweat less” and are less susceptible to various social or physical stimuli in general. To get the “buzz” they like, they need to rev things up, which could mean something harmless like a noisy party or, conversely, it could mean reckless thrill-seeking, with potential negative consequences for many people.

Extroverts can prevaricate with relative ease. And “sociopaths lie at the extreme end of this coolness barometer, with extremely low levels of arousal, skin conductance, and anxiety.” (p.142)

Finally, the extrovert style, which is taught at Harvard Business School, embraces deceit as a fundamental axiom of managerial strategy. Some of the tips given to students:

“Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only fifty-five percent, say it as if you believe it a hundred percent.”

“If you’re preparing alone for class, then you’re doing it wrong. Nothing at HBS is intended to be done alone.”

“Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in.” (p.47)

In conclusion, the way of the extrovert, which is pushed by our profit-hungry society, rests on the idea of excellence in deceit. It puts speed above prudence, charisma above research, and it prioritizes short-term goals while neglecting the bigger picture.

The introvert way, on the other hand, is cautious and thoughtful. It is empathic and sensitive. Cain points to research demonstrating that introverts make better leaders in situations where workers are allowed to be “pro-active,” that is, where they are allowed to think for themselves. If you just want workers to keep their heads down and obey, extroverts are good at the necessary skills of manipulation:

Cain cites studies showing that introverts are better at leading proactive employees because they listen to and let them run with their ideas, while extroverts are better at leading passive employees because they have a knack for motivation and inspiration.

Indeed, if you can make people conform, you can alter their brain chemistry to change the way they perceive reality. For instance, people can be made to believe that a drawn line is much smaller than it actually is (p.91), all because of group pressure.

If we want freedom of thought, not social manipulation and deceit, the introvert way is essential. Unfortunately, our society has a long way to go. At least introversion gets some much-needed stroking from Cain’s best-selling book.


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