Sunday, 5 February 2012

Beware of the Likeminded

A lengthy (you’ve been warned) critique of Susan Cain’s advocacy of introversion.

I've been reading several articles in the last few days by Susan Cain (thanks to James Atherton’s initial link). Cain argues that we have become obsessed by Groupthink in the West and that the increasing emphasis on teamwork is drowning the vital insights and contributions of the introverted. For Cain an introvert is someone who ”prefers quiet, minimally stimulating environments.” She mobilises a wide range of references in order to champion the value and power of introversion and in the process she has drummed up a substantial following of likeminded followers. Indeed on her own site she proclaims:

“I’m excited to report that the article is now the #1 most e-mailed piece in the entire Sunday Times. The Quiet Revolution has begun.”

As an introvert myself I was initially very intrigued by her message. She is right, of course, to celebrate a human quality that deserves to be credited with greater understanding as well as more numerous opportunities for expression. I have no gripe with this particular aspect of Cain's work but on the other hand I think that she has adopted what turns out to be a flawed approach which, for me, frequently undermines her basic premise and often leaves me infuriated by the numerous generalisations and self-congratulatory tone of her discussion.

The principal mistake repeatedly made by Cain is to lump all introverts together as if they shared the self same traits in equal measure and of identical origin and composition. There is a great diversity of people in the world with infinitely divisible gradations and compositions of personal characteristics and to simplify this into two opposing camps is not only patently nonsense but a divisive falsehood. No doubt her intention is to enlist the sympathies of her introverted readers and to reassure them that they are not alone (note the irony) but rather surrounded by numerous exemplary contemporary and historical examples. It’s a positive image and no doubt to some degree warranted. However, by ignoring the diversity amongst this - at best - heterogeneous group she also creates an entirely false opposition: a them-and-us situation where we, the introverted meek are the poor unsung heroes and geniuses of history whereas all extroverts are, by implication, a bunch of impulsive, self centered, insensitive and accident prone upstagers.

I know many people with introverted characters and I teach a great many introverts too. I also know and work with a good many extroverts. But for me the problems begin as soon as one starts to think about people in these ways. Apart from the more obvious extremes, the overlap between extroversion and introversion is incredibly broad. It’s not even a spectrum in the traditional sense since there are many people who exhibit both characteristics in different situations or even within the same situation. I myself actually take a certain amount of pleasure in speaking to large groups about things that I have thought about deeply but when it comes to introducing myself to strangers, for example at breaks during a conference or making small talk, I’d rather hide my head in a book – and often do.

Why might Cain’s message be so popular? Has she really identified a forgotten and neglected characteristic that all introverts have simply been too shy or too brow-beaten to recognise and promote? Has she given voice to the long pent up feelings of a silent minority or, on the contrary, is she simply telling us what we want to hear?

Fortune tellers and psychics commonly use a technique known as Cold Reading to convince people that the ‘reader’ is aware of significant personal details about the beliefs and character of an individual. Such readings often incorporate what have come to be known as Barnum statements (after the famous showman P.T. Barnum). Barnum statements are carefully crafted statements that large numbers of people commonly take to be meaningful descriptions of their own character - such statements as:

  • You are an independent thinker. You like to check out claims for yourself before you believe what someone tells you.
  • You have a creative streak that you aren't always able to indulge in.
  • You set huge, unattainable goals for yourself that you're rarely able to achieve.
  • You have a fear of rejection.
  • You feel guilty about and worry about things that are completely out of your control.
  • You are often too critical of yourself.
  • You are a daydreamer and a romantic. Often times you find yourself tuning out of conversations because your mind is somewhere else.
  • You are highly selective of your friends and very picky about who you have relationships with, although you have a wide range of acquaintances.
  • You are not deceptive -- you're very honest and trustworthy.

Whilst Cain doesn’t exactly use Barnum statements, if you’ve read anything by her you will probably recognize the similarities with the above. The point I’m trying to make here is that she’s calling on her readers to identify with the collective entity of introversion and in the process she risks generating the very thing that she criticises: her very own form of groupthink.

Cain is also critical of drugs like Zoloft that are prescribed for Social Anxiety Disorder since she believes these suppress traits that should be celebrated. But has she never heard of “Liquid Courage”? People have been using alcohol to alleviate social anxiety for as long as alcohol has been available. If it weren’t for the unpleasant side effects of alcohol then I’d be quite happy to down a couple of drinks during a conference to break a little ice. And if a legal drug with no side effects became available to temporarily reduce social anxiety then I’d be very keen to try it in some situations so I can certainly imagine why something like Zoloft could be a real help to some people. Surely one of the principal attractions of many ‘recreational’ drugs is the extent to which they to reduce social anxiety.

In June of last year Cain wrote an article for the New York Times Sunday Review (to which she refers in the above quote) entitled “Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?” (which was later reposted on - interestingly). Unfortunately the article makes barely a mention of evolution or the evolutionary role of introversion or shyness other than to describe the work of David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist whose studies of pumpkinseed sunfish led him to distinguish between what he described as “rovers” and “sitters”. Cain does acknowledge Wilson’s warning that: “’There is no single best ... [animal] personality, but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.’” but she seems to have almost entirely missed the point: it is diversity (not being introverted) that increases the likelihood of survival.

This fundamental issue of diversity is also a major theme in the work of Professor Scott E. Page whose research flatly contradicts many claims made by Cain. In his book, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies” Page suggests that group creativity is borne precisely of diversity and that:

"Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research."


“'How can we all be more productive together?' The answer, he suggests, is in messy, creative organizations and environments with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences."

I would contend that groupthink has very little to do with the proportions of extroverts to introverts in any group but rather the tendency of groups to form from likeminded people and to reinforce or amplify their initial inclinations, as indicated in this recent article by David G. Myers. Diversity and the dissent that diversity engenders in particular is therefore a vital component of successful group decision making. Tim Harford makes a very similar point in the following short video:

Amongst the articles I’ve read by Susan Cain I’ve twice come across the following quote from Adrian Furnham which is clearly intended to pour cold water on any notion that groups might be effective or creative:

"The organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham puts it pretty bluntly: The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

I’m struggling to think of a single situation when creativity or efficiency wouldn’t be a priority but, that aside, it seems like the “evidence from science”, or at least the evidence from the ‘scientist’ selected by Susan Cain, would seem to be contradicted by a good deal of current research.

There are times of course when Cain simply cannot deny the weight of evidence to which we all have access:

“The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations.”

She makes a good point here since it is true that the internet provides abundant opportunities for unhurried considered reflection and debate whilst avoiding almost all of the social awkwardness that creates such anxiety for many people.

So, what are Cain’s conclusions? From what I can gather these are straightforward: we’re social beings but there are times when we also desire (and deserve) solitude. Teamwork can be ok but we also need opportunities to be alone with our own thoughts and to bring these back to the group once they have crystallized more fully. Introverts sometimes need to strive to avoid being overcome by their reclusive inclinations just as extroverts should perhaps temper their zeal in certain circumstances to allow other voices to come through. Introverts can sometimes make great leaders. We should beware of medicating ourselves into a homogenous mass. We need to redress the balance between teamwork and solitude and provide opportunities in the workplace that cater for these different needs.

I can’t say that I disagree with any of this – only I’m reminded of something A. C. Grayling wrote:

"One big problem that infects the social scientific, and especially neuroscientific, study of diffuse and vaguely specified phenomena such as wisdom and happiness is that much of what happens in such study results in expensive and polysyllabic confirmation of what common sense and received wisdom long ago knew."


Tamsin said...

Bit slow to catch up your discussions here.. but I was vaguely thinking about this too, after Oliver Burkeman talked about Cain's work on 14th Feb in the Guardian (always ahead of the game, you are, Jim...). The thing I was thinking about was the definitions of these terms, which is one of your points about overlap, I think. You give her definition here as 'preferring quiet, minimally stimulating environments' - this is slightly more nuanced than the commonsense view. It seems to me that there's a kind of loose cultural notion of these terms as meaning; introvert - shy, quiet, possibly underconfident; extrovert - talkative, sociable, confident. I remember many years ago reading Dorothy Rowe's definition which was a lot more subtle, and which reversed this. I think she said something like that introverts got easily overwhelmed, and that the thing they feared most was a sense of internal chaos and lack of control. Whereas extroverts found being on their own, in silence, quite scarey, and liked to be with people, have radios on etc. I found this interesting at the time as it appeared to be a perfect description of me and my partner, and the absolute opposite of the normal assumed view. In the accepted view, I would seem to be extrovert, because of chattiness etc, and my partner would seem shy and quiet. However, in her terms, it's me whose the introvert and my partner who's the extravert...

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes it certainly seems to be a bit of a cloudy mire of confusion doesn’t it. I’ve just looked extroversion/introversion up on Wikipedia where there are several different interpretations. The last line from the intro says it all: “In any case, people fluctuate in their behavior all the time, and even extreme introverts and extraverts do not always act according to their type.”

Tamsin said...

Yes, I'm always ambivalent about these neat binary things, and particularly personality 'types'. This stuff used to drive me completley potty when endlessly applied to 'learners', and even pottier when the conclusion was arrived through supposedly 'verified' self-report tests. On the other hand, I also go potty when academics think they're being clever every time someone uses a binary model and start banging on about the problems of neatness and that continua are more like it and all the rest of it. I think binary models can be dead useful, as long as we all remember that they're 'useful fictions', which enable us to talk and argue and think. I've got a feeling Derrida or whoever it was never actually said that binaries were a no-no, only that we should be aware of their pitfalls and explore their usefulness in full awareness....

J. Hamlyn said...

Ahh yes verified self-report tests. That’s half the problem really isn’t it – the tendency to reduce everything down to meaningless essences that oversimplify who and what we are and, worse still, to accept these caricatures as accurate depictions of ourselves. It’s frightening how gullible we can be especially when we’re offered a flattering reflection and the suggestion that we’re surrounded by likeminded and similarly oppressed individuals who can help us work together to gain recognition for what we deserve.

Tamsin said...

Indeed. I meant to say how interested I was to see those Barnum statements...

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