On viewing ‘The Power of Introverts’ Ted Talk by Susan Cain
Objective – what did I learn?
I learned according to Susan Cain, that a ‘quiet and introverted style of being’ requiring less external stimulation, is less accepted in society, and from an early age she felt pressure to be more extraverted. She felt she had to prove herself by being bold and assertive, which were reflexive, self-negating choices that she made without even being aware of them. She explains that making these choices is what many introverts do, to the detriment of themselves, relationships, and society.
The pressure to be more extraverted is a bias that is prevalent in our western society. An introvert ‘internalizes’ this bias ‘from a very early age’. Our social institutions of school and workplace are designed mostly for extraverts, encouraging lots of stimulation. In this design, group work is a common theme. The introvert would more often rather work on their own, but must play into the bias, often quieter and seemingly less involved than their extravert companions.
An introvert is defined as a person who prefers internal stimulation, an extravert prefers external stimulation, and an ambivert is someone who falls in the middle. There is no one who is purely introverted, nor extraverted. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two, and ‘recognize ourselves as one type or the other’. Because society is geared toward extraverts, we ‘culturally need a much better balance’.
Reflective – my personal reactions, internal responses, associations
Personally, Susan Cain is preaching to the choir. I identify with her angst growing up in an extravert-centered world. I have felt the disconnection and bias in certain settings. Several times, especially when I was in the corporate world, it came up that I needed assertiveness training, and why couldn’t I be more like a salesman.
Further in her talk, Cain mentions the group dynamic, in which we instinctively mimic another’s opinions. I have caught myself doing this. In that moment, I was contributing to the progression of the conversation by simply agreeing, rather than having the time to formulate and express my thoughts and ideas. I’m fairly wise to this trait now, and watch myself, so I don’t readily agree without some reflection.
I identify myself as a mild introvert, and I can move to extravert as required. Like Cain, I will do public speaking, but not without some fear and anxiety. I actually enjoy giving thoughtful toasts, and mentoring / instructing. I don’t prefer to spend all my time alone, and I do enjoy groups and parties. But I notice that in a group or party setting, I prefer to have longer conversations with fewer people, rather than a lot of mingling and small talk.
Interpretive – Meaning, value, significance – why?
Introversion is not bad, it is not less than, it is just different. I agree it is the charismatic salesmen of our society who seem to be the ones we notice, keep an eye on, and follow, but we notice and follow quieter change-makers, too. The change-makers in our society are the people who bring their ideas forth and act on them. These people can easily be either introverts or extraverts. Cain gave a few examples of introversive change-makers, and there are definitely many whom are extraverted. Both types can be creative.
The overall theme of Cain’s talk is that introverted people are culturally oppressed, therefore operating in a culture that favors extraverted people. Cain states in an interview with Scientific American, ‘Many introverts feel there’s something wrong with them, and try to pass as extroverts. But whenever you try to pass as something you’re not, you lose a part of yourself along the way.’ How can anyone attain self-actualization if they operate with restriction?
Extraverts are more visible, so we think there are more of them. But as was reported in Psychology Today (Sept.2010): ‘According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test administered to two randomized national samples, introverts make up 50 percent of the U.S. population.’ Introverts can get self-sidelined in the noise and confusion of our immediacy-based society. As stated by Laurie Helgoe, PhD, in Psychology Today: ‘It’s not just that we overestimate the numbers of extraverts in our midst because they’re more salient. The bias of individuals is reinforced in the media, which emphasize the visual, the talkative, and the sound bite— immediacy over reflection.’ We want people who can answer and act immediately. No time to think about it. Helgoe also points out:
‘Introverts are collectors of thoughts, and solitude is where the collection is curated and rearranged to make sense of the present and future. Introverts can tolerate—and enjoy—projects that require long stretches of solitary activity. Extraverts often have to discipline themselves for bouts of solitary work, and then they prefer frequent social breaks.’
In her article, Helgoe references research results that show dopamine levels in extraverts rise in situations of external stimulus. They truly enjoy the environment. Introverts, on the other hand, all had ‘higher levels of electrical activity—indicating greater cortical arousal—‘ and, ‘given their higher level of brain activity and reactivity, introverts limit input from the environment in order to maintain an optimal level of arousal. Solitude, quite literally, allows introverts to hear themselves think.’
In groups, whether in learning, socially, or in the workplace, all participants – not only the introverts – are discouraged from creativity because as Cain states:
‘This is no surprise, though, if you look at the insights of contemporary psychology. It turns out that we can’t even be in a group of people without instinctively mirroring, mimicking their opinions.’
‘ … groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas — I mean zero.’
Decisional – resolution to make a decision about the future.
The clear message in Cain’s talk is that introverts operate differently from extraverts. Introverts will ideally have some time and space to assemble their thoughts in a cohesive and meaningful way. This is a situational challenge in the extravert-oriented culture we have created, especially in group environments.
Being sensitive and aware of these polar traits can help me to be a better instructor. Do I dare have a session in which we explore our ‘verts’, as suggested in Cain’s Teacher’s Guide to her book The Power of Introverts. I think respectfully done, a ‘vert’-exploring session would be enlightening for all participants. It could be done privately on-line, such as the Myers-Briggs personality test, with a follow up in-class to explain the introvert / extravert dynamic, and assure the students that wherever they land in the spectrum is equally okay.
I will encourage all learners in their learning and be aware of the need for quiet thinking during a lesson. I will coach them out of their comfort zones, if only for a short time, nurturing self-monitoring as described in chapter 9 of Cain’s teacher’s guide: ‘Individuals who are adept at self-monitoring are able to change their persona to fit the demands of a given situation, even if it means going against their natural tendencies.’ Self-monitoring moves the introvert temporarily to an extravert persona, and vice-versa. It should only be practiced in situations that reflect the individual’s core beliefs.
I’m unsure about group work. I don’t think group work should be abolished, but between its mediocre ranking in John Hattie’s study Visible Learning and the evident negative effects on possibly half the class (introverts), it is low on my list of instructional strategies. I can still use it, but approach it in a modified way, especially when the group work requires creative input. I think adding a simple step to the beginning of the activity, in which the learners have time to write down their thoughts and ideas before forming into groups would help.
In summary, the teacher and learners will benefit from both the exploration of the introvert / extravert personas, and making adaptive tweaks to instruction to accommodate both types.
- Appendix 1: Crossed Signals “X” and “I” in dialogue
- Appendix 2: What Not to Say to an Introvert
Cain, S. The Power of Introverts Ted Talk (Feb. 2012) retrieved from:
Cook, G. The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance. Scientific American
(Jan. 2012) retrieved from:
Helgoe, L. PhD., Hutson, M. Revenge of the Introvert. Psychology Today (Sept. 2010)
Treadway, C., PhD., Treadway, D. PhD. (2011). Teacher’s Guide to The Power of
Introverts, by Susan Cain. Retrieved from:
Appendix 1: Crossed Signals “X” and “I” in dialogue
Conversation between an introvert and an extravert can involve a series of misunderstandings. As the introvert struggles to follow multiple conversational threads and sort out his own thoughts, he remains quiet and appears to be just listening. The extravert reads that as engagement, a cue to keep talking. The introvert struggles with the continuing flow of input and soon starts to shut out the extravert, while nodding or smiling, or even trying to stop the exchange.
Even a simple opener of “Hello, how are you? Hey, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about X,” from anyone can challenge an introvert. Rather than bypassing the first question or interrupting the flow to answer it, the introvert holds onto the question: Hmm, how am I? (An internal dialogue begins, in which the introvert “hears” herself talking internally as the other person speaks.)
Even if the introvert responds, “I’m good,” she’s probably still reflecting on how she is: Good? That’s not quite right. I really have had a pretty crummy day, but there isn’t a quick way to explain that. She wants to first work out privately her thoughts and judgment about the day. She also may evaluate the question itself: I hate that we so often just say ‘good’ because that’s the convention. The other person doesn’t really want to know. She may even activate memories of how the question has struck her in the past.
While the introvert is evaluating the question on at least two levels (how she is feeling and what she thinks about the question, perhaps also what this says about our society), the speaker is already moving on to sharing something about his day. The introvert must take the incoming message from the speaker and tuck it into working memory until she can get to it, while more information keeps flowing in that demands tracking, sorting, searching, and critical analysis.
The cognitive load becomes increasingly difficult to manage, as the internal talk competes with the external conversation. Moreover, while trying to keep the conversation going, introverts may miss social cues, which can make them appear socially inept. The conversation is also anxiety-provoking, because the introvert feels she has too little time to share a complete thought. She hungers to pull away and give time to the thoughts her brain has generated.
—Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D. in Psychology Today (Sept.2010)
Appendix 2: What Not to Say to an Introvert
Introverts, those quiet creatures that walk among you, are not as mild-mannered as made out to be. They seethe and even will lash out at those who encroach upon or malign their personal comfort zones. Here are a few emotional buttons to avoid with your introverted companions.
“‘Why don’t you like parties? Don’t you like people?’ is a common remark introverts hear,” says Marti Laney, a psychologist and the author of The Introvert Advantage. “Usually we like people fine,” she insists. “We just like them in small doses.” Cocktail parties can be deadly. “We’re social but it’s a different type of socializing.”
“Surprise, we’ve decided to bring the family and stay with you for the weekend.” Anyone anywhere on the -vert spectrum could find such a declaration objectionable, but it’s more likely to bring an introvert to a boil, according to Nancy Ancowitz. Introverts count on their downtime to rejuvenate their resources; an extended presence in their homes robs them of that respite.
Don’t demand immediate feedback from an introvert. “Extraverts think we have answers but just aren’t giving them,” Laney says. “They don’t understand we need time to formulate them” and often won’t talk until a thought is suitably polished.
Don’t ask introverts why they’re not contributing in meetings. If you’re holding a brainstorming session, let the introvert prepare, or encourage him to follow up with his contributions afterward.
Don’t interrupt if an introvert does get to talking. Listen closely. “Being overlooked is a really big issue for introverts,” Laney says. Introverts are unlikely to repeat themselves; they will not risk making the same mistake twice.
Above all, “we hate people telling us how we can be more extraverted, as if that’s the desired state,” says Beth Buelow, a life and leadership coach for introverts. Many introverts are happy with the way they are. And if you’re not, that’s your problem.
—Matthew Hutson in Psychology Today (Sept.2010)