A number of books in the past two or three years have highlighted new research about how the brain works to improve our understanding of how we function and even how we can improve our behavior.
Such books seek to teach readers how to be more creative (“Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin, 2012), how to establish positive new habits and eliminate bad ones (“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, Random House, 2012) or how to be smarter (“This Will Make You Smarter” by John Brockman, Harper Perennial, 2012).
Into this genre comes yet another entry: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain (Crown, 2013). But the intent of “Quiet” is a bit different than other modern advice books. Rather than inciting self-improvement, Cain seeks to let us better understand and accept ourselves, particularly those who are introverts.
The author first offers definitions, drawing heavily on psychotherapist Carl Jung: “Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves.”
Cain offers a 16-question test that allows readers unsure of their type to assess it. She then notes that since the beginning of the 20th century, Americans have been barraged with the message that extroverts are more successful than introverts in both their personal and professional lives, and that introverts could and should take classes and seminars and read books to “get over” their deficiencies.
But are most successful business leaders, for example, extroverts? Cain says no, citing the research of Wharton School management professor Adam Grant, who studied leadership extensively and found that both personality types do well in leadership positions. She also mentions that leaders in Asia tend to be generally more introspective and concerned with relationship building, and the style has worked quite well for that culture.
Cain gives plenty of advice in “Quiet.” She recommends, for example, that parents of introverted children respect their natures and not try to force them into sports, clubs and activities. She suggests that businesses reconsider the trend toward forcing most employees to work in large, open office spaces, given that some researchers have reported that “personal space is vital to creativity.” She also comments on how “mixed couples” – where one is an introvert and the other an extrovert – can communicate more effectively and learn to compromise.
The most interesting part of “Quiet” addresses temperament. Researcher Jerome Kagan studied infant behavior and labels infants as either “high reactive,” those who wave their arms and legs around a lot, or “low reactive,” those who are quiet. Kagan discovered that high-reactive babies usually became introverted adults and vice versa, suggesting a strong biological basis to introversion. Can one overcome this biological effect? Yes, Cain believes, but only to some extent.
“Quiet” is rife with useful information about personality types, and most readers should gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others. Although the book is aimed primarily at introverts, most book clubs that enjoy reading about human behavior should find it a worthwhile selection.
Leslie Ashmore is a Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.