Susan Cain, a Harvard law school graduate and former attorney and negotiator, used to regard her quiet and reserved nature as a disadvantage, something to be overcome. But then she began researching introversion as a personality trait, and discovered that what many see as a weakness is actually a strength — one that most Americans, with their love of risk-taking and intense socializing, fail to appreciate fully.
Healthland spoke with Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, about the latest research — which is also explored in depth in this week’s TIME cover story, “The Upside of Being an Introvert,” available to subscribers here. (Full disclosure: Susan is a member of the writer’s group known as the Invisible Institute to which this reporter also belongs.)
How do you define introversion?
There are many different definitions that psychologists use. One that many would agree with — and that I like — is ‘people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.’ The key is about stimulation: extroverts feel at their best and crave a high degree of stimulation. For introverts, the optimal zone is much lower.
Being sensitive to intensely stimulating environments is also a feature of people on the autism spectrum. Is that related?
Some people have floated that idea, but I don’t really buy it. What marks the autism spectrum is an inability to read social cues and understand other minds, and that’s not characteristic of introverts. I do think that they face certain difficulties in common. They might equally not like parties because they are overstimulating, even though what’s going on inside is quite different.
MORE: Take the Quiz! Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert?
What’s the difference between introversion and shyness?
Shyness is fear of social judgment and humiliation, and introversion is really preference for less stimulation. You could have a child who prefers to work alone but is not afraid of other kids, but just has this preference. They sometimes come together but they can be very different. It drives non-shy introverts crazy when people assume they are shy when in fact, they are [simply] not wanting to participate.
Introverts suffer the problem of not being heard. What can be done about that?
It’s a combination of things. [Change] has to come from inside themselves and our organizational culture. At the level of the organizational culture, leadership and management have to understand that there is such a thing as different communication styles and not place a value judgment on one over the other. And they can do that out of self-interest. It’s one of two or three people [who are introverted]. If you want the best ideas and the best of every brain in your organization, you need to care about this.
So what can we do to help introverts be part of the conversation more?
You make sure that you structure meetings in such way that everyone is given advance notice about what will discussed. This helps introverts [who often] have trouble thinking on the fly. [They often have good ideas but say things like:] ‘I thought it was too late to [mention it] and the meeting was over already.’
Another thing that employers can do is to set up effective online communication systems, not just email but more elaborate systems where people can [post their thoughts] online.
How can introverted children be reached in school?
This is a tricky thing. I think the first step is to truly understand what introversion is, not just understand and tolerate it, but truly learn to admire them and take delight in them. Once you get to know introverted children, you see that they do have great riches to offer that other children may not. It all starts with shifting our understanding of what it means to have introverted children in the classroom.
There’s study that shows that a majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert. The narrative is ‘How can we coax these children out of their shells?’ I don’t disagree with that idea. It’s not a bad thing to help introverted children get to a place of comfort. But we need to understand that there’s so much more to introverted children beyond the fact it that takes them longer to warm up in new situations.
MORE: Don’t Call Introverted Children ‘Shy’
Are extroverts and introverts wired differently?
It seems extroverts have more active reward networks than introverts do. They seem more responsive to dopamine, and what this mean is that when extroverts are confronted with the prospect of reward, getting a promotion, winning money, etc., they get more excited than introverts typically would and this is related to risk-taking. They start to focus on the reward so much and don’t see warning signals as much as introverts would. Introverts are not as blinded by the prospect of reward. …
Extroverts tend to be bigger risk-takers than introverts. Studies show that extroverts are more likely to have car accidents, more likely to place large financial bets, more likely to participate in extreme sports. This doesn’t mean that introverts don’t take risks. A study of London investment bankers found that the most successful traders were introverts. They have a more circumspect and cautious approach to risk.
So did extroverts cause the financial crisis?
This is an interesting thing. I don’t want to be too simplistic because obviously it was caused by many different factors. But I think one underappreciated role is the fact that Wall Street has such an extroverted culture and bold risk-taking. It doesn’t appeal to the type of person that is more cautious and pays attention to warning signs. What happened is that over the last few years, those types became more and more discredited because it seemed as if their warnings were false. There was one bull market after another. Even those who had doubts didn’t feel empowered to express them.
Do people behave more like introverts or extroverts depending on who’s around them?
It does vary with situation, it absolutely does. Carl Jung who proposed these terms talked about how there is no such thing as someone who’s all introvert or all extrovert: ‘Such a man would be in a lunatic asylum,’ he said. It varies, but we all have places where we are more introverted or extroverted.
Are women or men more likely to be introverted?
Men are ever so slightly more likely to be introverts than women. I think the more interesting question is, How does this play in with gender roles and what expectations people have? It goes both ways. On one hand, men are expected to take charge and be forceful and dominant, so it can be hard [to be introverted]. But there’s also still the model of the strong silent type.
For women, it’s more culturally acceptable to be introverted, although it’s getting harder and harder. Being shy used to be idealized [for women]. On the other hand, there’s the expectation to be social and vivacious and a good hostess and to make other people feel comfortable. It’s a matter of finding which available gender role suits your style.
MORE: How Small Groups Sap Intelligence — Especially in Women
Should introverts ever try to be more extroverted, and vice versa?
We all need sometimes to act out of character for the sake of work or people we love. This is healthy and good to do. Extroverts need to do, it too. They might have to sit down for six hours to write a memo when they would prefer to walk the halls with their colleagues.
It’s O.K. to do this for a higher goal, but you need to make sure that you haven’t set your life up so that you are doing it all of the time. You should do it some of the time. The other thing that’s important is that once you really start to examine who you are and feel entitled to be who you are, you start giving yourself permission to take the breaks you need.
Given their response to reward networks in the brain, are extroverts actually happier?
That’s very much debated. Lots of psychologists would say yes, but also there are many happy introverts. We get into the thorny thicket of what means to be happy here.
When you are in the state of ‘flow,’ described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [a state of intense engagement in work or other activity], he says it’s a state that transcends reward. You are totally at one with the task you’re engaged in. [This is a state more commonly sought by and experienced by introverts, often in solitude.]
I would argue that that’s a wonderful and transcendent state to be in and it’s a happy state, but not necessarily the happiness of bubbly exuberance. It’s a different kind of happiness.
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Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.