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Book Review: Quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

by Susan Cain

Crown Publishers, 2012

If we begin with a fairly benign universal truth – that quiet, introverted people are at best physically and spiritually warped in some way or at worst back-stabbing plotters – we see at once some intriguing problems with the sub-title of Susan Cain’s new book: “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Surely, we say (out loud, of course, preferably to an audience), introverts, or “wussies” as they’re colloquially known, have no power? Surely that’s the whole point and tragedy of being a wussie in the first place? What can this mean?

It’s canny on Cain’s part to intrigue her readers so, and it’s equally canny to put her straw man right there in the same sub-title: for who of us likes that “world that can’t stop talking”? Who of us hasn’t felt ready to drown in the endless banal chatter that’s been unleashed by ‘reality’ TV shows, the atomic explosion of self-empowerment movements, the ubiquity of social media sites, the non-stop noise of the Internet itself? Cain wants to make it easy to identify with any beleaguered group that stands in opposition to that stultifying world that can’t stop talking. Before she’s even written a word, she’s carefully positioned her introverts as the everyman heroes of the drama she’s describing.

In the breezily, engagingly written pages that follow – this book would very much like to go on the same bestseller shelf with other brainless pop-psychology titles like Outliers and First, Break All the Rules – Cain does so much eating her cake and having it too she ought to be in the catering business. She writes that according to some surveys, introverts may account for as much as a third of the population – and then she proceeds to characterize as introverts anybody who’s behaviors she likes, and to call anybody whose behaviors she likes an introvert. Gandhi was perfectly comfortable talking to gigantic audiences in his underwear, but he just had to be an introvert, because he was so deep and spiritual and stuff. Another person we’re told is an introvert prefers quiet contemplation and introspection to large scale public performance – all well and good, except the person is former Vice President Al Gore, who certainly doesn’t act like any introvert I’ve ever known and needled:

(Some of Cain’s other choices for spotlights are equally questionable – her portrait of self-help guru and raving egomaniac Tony Robbins is too adulatory by half, and certainly her introverted gay readers will have problems with her simple repetition of the claim that Rick Warren, mastermind of the “vast Saddleback [Church] ecosystem,” seems “well-meaning” and has “done good works around the world.”)

To shore up her oversimplifications, Cain goes often to that first refuge of junk-analysts, psychology. The pushers of such mumbo-jumbo have long theorized that introverts are not made but born, that the differences between introvert and extrovert are apparent even in the maternity ward – though not in ways you might first expect:

[Psychologist Jerry] Kagan hypothesized that infants born with an especially excitable amygdala would wiggle and howl when shown unfamiliar objects – and grow up to be children who were more likely to feel vigilant when meeting new people. And this is just what he found. In other words, the four-month-olds who thrashed their arms like punk rockers did so not because they were extroverts in the making, but because their little bodies reacted strongly – they were “high-reactive” – to new sights, sounds, and smells. The quiet infants were silent not because they were future introverts – just the opposite – but because they had nervous systems that were unmoved by novelty.

Note the dexterous game of three-card-monte being played in that excerpt: the poor unfortunate babies born with this mal-formed amygdala are pin-wheeling their arms and screaming like gibbons (and doing lord-knows-what to their nappies) at the sight of an unfamiliar nurse, but what does such a weird overreaction translate to in older childhood? Vigilance. Good old admirable vigilance. Whereas the babies who laid there watching the changes around them without flailing and voiding themselves? Well, they’re blockishly “unmoved by novelty.” So they’ll grow up to scorn Occupy Wall Street, belittle the artistic achievements of Picasso, and denigrate James Joyce’s Ulysses. Except that’s not what the excerpt indicates. Those future extroverts aren’t “unmoved by novelty” – they’re “unmoved to panic by novelty.” There’s a bit of a difference.

Time and again in Quiet, that difference is papered over with the diplomas of the experts Cain assembles to sing the praises of introverts – almost always at the expense of extroverts:

Conversely, high-reactive children may be more likely to develop into artists and writers and scientists and thinkers because their aversion to novelty causes them to spend time inside the familiar – and intellectually fertile – environment of their own heads. “The university is filled with introverts,” observes psychologist Jerry Miller, director of the Center for the Child and the Family at the University of Michigan. “The stereotype of the university professor is accurate for so many people on campus: they like to read; for them there’s nothing more exciting than ideas. And some of this has to do with how they spent their time when they were growing up. If you spend a lot of time charging around, then you have less time for reading and learning. There’s only so much time in your life.”

The fraudulent assertion here (that ‘high-reactive’ children may be more likely to develop into scientists and thinkers – when of course they may not be too) is bad, the fraudulent illustration here (that implication that introverted professors are somehow better than their extroverted counterparts, when anybody who’s ever taken even a single college course knows the opposite is true) is worse, and the fraudulent dichotomy (that forceful action – ‘charging around’ – can only be done at the expense of thinking – i.e. that extroverts are dumb – dammit, that extroverts are dumb! It’s all through this book) is the worst. Despite telling her readers that introverts are basically born terrified and spend the rest of their lives in a permanent state of alarmed tension, despite describing their amygdalas big as pumpkins, Cain refuses to call these creatures the twisted, squinting, probable Communists they so clearly are. Even that ur-wussie trait, fear of public speaking (fear! as though a podium in front of an audience weren’t the nearest mortals can come to Heaven!) is here treated in primordial rather than moral terms – that guy in the third row with narrowed eyes? He’s invoking a fight-or-flight reflex! Now wonder our poor speaker is sluiced with flops-sweat and fumbling with index cards!

It’s all in the chemistry, as you probably saw coming a mile off. Cain explains:

The neurons that transmit information in the reward network [of the human brain] operate in part through a neurotransmitter – a chemical that carries information between brain cells – called dopamine. Dopamine is the “reward chemical” released in response to anticipated pleasures. The more responsive your brain is to dopamine, or the higher the level of dopamine you have available to release, some scientists believe, the more likely you are to go after rewards like sex, chocolate, money, and status. Stimulating mid-brain dopamine activity in mice gets them to run around excitedly in an empty cage until they drop dead of starvation.

In case you missed the elephantine implication: extroverts are not only bullies and blockheads who spend all their time charging around instead of thinking, they’re also junkies who just can’t get enough dopamine. Never mind that sex, chocolates, money, and status aren’t the only rewards that trigger dopamine release – I’m guessing quite a few fire fighters were feeling it on the morning of 9/11, for instance, motivated by heroism rather than chocolate – and, incidentally, also never mind that it was almost certainly an introvert who came up with the idea of torturing mice to death in order to confirm what chemical analysis would have confirmed just as well. Instead, Cain wants you to concentrate on the fact that inner torment is a good thing, that you can’t have Mozarts and Beethovens without it. Even the homeliest inner torment of all – guilt – is a good thing in the gifted hands of her darlings:

“Functional, moderate guilt,” writes [mental psychologist Grazyna] Kochanska, “may promote future altruism, personal responsibility, adaptive behavior in school, and harmonious, competent, and prosocial relationships with parents, teachers, and friends.” This is an especially important set of attributes at a time when a 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (The study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.” Whatever the cause, it’s interesting to note that empathy is declining just as rates of extroversion are rising among college students.)

The right interpretation of that boneheaded University of Michigan study is as plain as the sun in the sky, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with some cock-eyed connection between empathy and introversion (in order to even begin to do that, it would have to look at people before and after they entered college, not college students before and after 2000): college students show forty percent less empathy now than they did thirty years ago because college is (at least) forty percent more expensive than it was thirty years ago – meaning only those students who were already more extroverted (and cut-throat) in high school are getting in (and therefore being studied). The idea that ‘functional, moderate guilt’ (does such a thing even exist? If so, today’s mothers just aren’t trying hard enough) may make better parents, teachers, and friends was addle-pated before Cain misinterpreted that one lonely study she mentions, and it’s just as addle-pated after she’s done.

And lest we forget some of the most cut-throat of those students, Cain reminds us – mistakenly, of course:

Soft power is not limited to moral examples like Mohandas Gandhi. Consider, for example, the much-ballyhooed excellence of Asians in fields like math and science. Professor Ni defines soft power as “quiet persistence,” and this trait lies at the heart of academic excellence as surely as it does in Gandhi’s political triumphs. Quiet persistence requires sustained attention – in effect restraining one’s reaction to external stimuli.

If Cain thinks there’s much ‘soft power’ being exercised in the high schools of Japan or South Korea, she hasn’t visited such places lately. The idea that the viciously hectored young students coming out of such schools gained their math and science excellence through quiet, contemplative persistence in sun-dappled sand gardens, with birds chirping and an unseen fountain splashing somewhere nearby, is one of the most ludicrous in a book that’s not lacking them.

“During times of war or fear,” Cain writes, “it might seem that what we need most are aggressive heroic types. But if our entire population consisted of warriors, who would notice, let alone battle, the potentially deadly but far quieter threats of viral disease or climate change?”

On one very shallow level, it’s a legitimate question – but like everything else in this book, it’s based on a false association: it pre-supposes that a) all extroverts are ‘aggressive heroic types,’ b) that all aggressive types are ‘warriors,’ and c) that aggressive, heroic types are incapable of noticing anything quieter than a trebuchet flinging car-sized boulders. In fact, it’s the phlegmatic, ‘vigilant’ introvert who’s far more likely to study, assess, triple-check, and quadruple-verify a potential ‘quiet’ threat long after the point where action is needed.

And that action – going into hot zones, creating advocacy campaigns, lobbying governments, running for office on platforms of change – is always taken by extroverts who are charging around for what they believe. Ingrown-toenail deliberation becomes an almost involuntary fetish with most introverts – and I’ve never met a single one who didn’t deplore that trait in themselves. The proper response to a world that can’t stop talking isn’t to retreat to your bonsai garden and contemplate the intellectually fertile environment of your own head – it’s to join in the talk, in a constantly-striving effort to make it better talk. Cain argues that introverts have something vital to contribute to that chattering world – but their contributions don’t matter if they don’t make them.

For all the annoyances of this book, I think Cain owes readers a sequel. She can call it Loud, and she can redress the balance.