The “Extrovert Ideal”

Susan Cain says Western, and in particular, American, culture is dominated by what she calls the “Extrovert Ideal,” described as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.” Western societies, being based on the Greco-Roman ideal which praises oratory, favor the man of action over the man of contemplation, and view introversion as being between a disappointment and pathology. In contrast, traditional, pre-Americanized Asian culture is more inclined to value reticence and caution. The Harvard Independent’s Faith Zhang remarked that Quiet seems in part a gentle rebuke to a culture that values style over substance.

Historical roots

Cain traces the historical roots of the Extrovert Ideal to the rise of industrial America in the late 19th century, before which a culture of character dominated, and after which “a perfect storm of big business, urbanization and mass immigration” changed America into what historian Warren Susman called a culture of personality, in which perception trumps truth. The Globe and Mail’s Zosia Bielski described this transformation as being aligned with “the rise of the salesman” and “the move from morals to magnetism”—which Cain says has changed forever “who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children.”

Pitfalls of the Extrovert Ideal

In general terms, Cain has stated that we can’t be in a group of people without instinctively mirroring each other, and groups follow the most charismatic person, even though there is no correlation between being a good speaker and having great ideas. Cain says collective thinking approaches not only favor dominant extroverts, but that relying on brainstorming is a mistake, arguing that serious original thought and the expertise that generates it are almost always individual.[12] Cain cites physiological research showing that when people (not just introverts) oppose group consensus, their brains’ amygdalae “light up”—signaling fear of rejection—thus discouraging potentially valuable individual contribution to the group.[16] Cain cites research indicating that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption,[17] the implication being that enforced teamwork can stifle creativity.[16] As a concrete example of the risks of groupthink, Cain mentions juries, in which the desire for social cohesion can sometimes short-circuit justice.[16][18] She suggests that the predominantly extroverted temperament of management in the investment and banking industries—which temperament involves dopamine-related reward seeking tendencies—may have contributed to the 2008 banking crisis.[12][16]

The introvert-extrovert spectrum: Cain defines introversion and extroversion in terms of preferences for different levels of stimulation.

Defining introversion

Various schools of psychology define introversion differently. Cain’s definition is that introverts have a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating environment. Introverts tend to enjoy quiet concentration, listen more than they talk, and think before they speak, and have a more circumspect and cautious approach to risk. Introverts think more, are less reckless and focus on what really matters—relationships and meaningful work. Conversely, extroverts are energized by social situations and tend to be assertive multi-taskers who think out loud and on their feet. Cain says that between one-third and one-half of Americans may be classified as introverts, though individuals fall at different places along an introvert-extrovert spectrum. People falling near the middle of the spectrum are called “ambiverts.”

Distinguishing introversion

Cain distinguishes introversion from superficially similar personality traits, in particular charging the perceived identity between shyness and introversion to be a huge misconception.[14] She explains that shyness is inherently uncomfortable but introversion is not.[19] Crediting retired developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, Quiet recognizes that there is not a single cause for a given behavior; there are many routes to behaviors such as being slow to warm up, shyness, and impulsivity.[22] Cain distinguishes introversion—characterized by her as a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating environment[3][19][20]—from being shy (a fear of negative judgment)[20] and from being anti-social (introverts and extroverts being differently social),[23] and from autism (inability to read social cues and understand other minds not being characteristic of introverts.)[3]

Core to our identities

Cain asserts that whether one is outwardly oriented to the surrounding world, or inwardly oriented to the inner riches of the mind, has as profound an effect as one’s gender.[14][24] Cain asserted that our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race, that the single most important aspect of personality is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, and that one’s place on this continuum “influences our choice of friends and mates, how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them.”[25]

Introverts acting as “pseudo-extroverts”

According to Cain, in a culture that is biased against them, introverts are pressured to act like extroverts instead of embracing their serious, often quiet and reflective style.[24] Cain’s research included visits to what she termed three nerve centers of the Extrovert Ideal—a Tony Robbins self-help seminar, the Harvard Business School, and a megachurch—noting the discomfort and struggles experienced by introverts in those environments[22] and “shining a light” on the bias against introversion.[19] She said that people have to act out of our true character sometimes but that it’s not healthy to act out of one’s true character most or all of the time:[24] “Whenever you try to pass as something you’re not, you lose a part of yourself along the way. You especially lose a sense of how to spend your time.”[19]

However, Cain essentially adopts the “Free Trait Theory” of Dr. Brian Little, agreeing that introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for (core personal goals[16])—work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly[26]—provided they also grant themselves restorative niches, which are places to go and time to be their real selves.[27] Also, in a February 2012 article, Cain listed six self-help strategies introverts may use to nourish their strengths, including “talking deeply,” working alone, reading others’ works (“a deeply social act”), listening well, taking mini-breaks from overstimulating environments, and practicing “quiet commitment.”[28]

Core to our identities

Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality … is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them.

“Introduction: The North and South of Temperament”
Pages 2-3 of Quiet’[14][25]

Physiology of temperament

Cain maintains that there are introverts and extroverts in almost every species of the animal kingdom, each having a corresponding survival strategy.[21] She says that research indicates our own degree of introversion or extroversion is detectable in infants and likely to be innate,[12] and about 50% heritable (half by nature, half by nurture).[27] Babies who are more highly reactive (more sensitive) to stimulation are more likely to develop into introverts, while less reactive (less sensitive) babies generally become extroverts who actually draw on the energy around them.[12] Introverts appear to be less responsive than extroverts to dopamine (a brain chemical linked to reward-driven learning), and have a more circumspect and cautious approach to risk than do extroverts.[3] Introverts are more governed by the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, language and decision making.[12]

In the workplace

Concerning the workplace, Quiet critiques today’s perceived overemphasis on collaboration: brainstorming leading to groupthink, and meetings leading to organizational inertia.[22] Cain urges changes to the workplace to make it less focused on what she terms “The New Groupthink”—the idea that creativity and productivity emerge from a necessarily gregarious place—and more conducive to deep thought and solo reflection.[1] According to Cain, research shows that charismatic leaders earn bigger paychecks but do not have better corporate performance; that brainstorming results in lower quality ideas and the more vocally assertive extroverts are the most likely to be heard; that the amount of space allotted to each employee has shrunk 60% since the 1970s; and that open office plans are associated with reduced concentration and productivity, impaired memory, higher turnover and increased illness.[11] Cain says that the more creative people tend to be “socially poised introverts,”[13] solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity,[19] and office designs and work plans should allow people to be alone as well as to socialize.[22]

Personal relationships

Cain has noted that people of different temperament who become involved in personal relationships—possibly drawn to one another by a sense that each completes the other[29]—can encounter misunderstanding and conflict.[14] After a day’s work an introvert may need to quietly recharge, while the extrovert may find the introvert’s withdrawal hurtful; conversely, the extrovert may want to jointly socialize with others, which the introvert may find exhausting.[14][29] Cain advises, first, a mutual understanding of where the other party is coming from; and second, balancing their respective needs for socializing and for solitude in a practical compromise in how the couple connects and how the couple jointly socializes with others.[14][29]

Education and child development

Cain describes how introversion in children is not a defect but instead may involve a careful, sensitive temperament that may bring stronger academics, enhanced creativity and a unique brand of leadership and empathy. Cain says that introverts win a disproportionate number of Phi Beta Kappa keys and National Merit Scholarship finalist positions, cheat and break rules less, are more likely to be described by parents and caregivers as empathetic or conscientious, and are less likely to get into car accidents, participate in extreme sports and place large financial bets.[30] Cain advises that students need more privacy and autonomy, and should be taught to work together but also how to work alone.[10] Judith Warner, an author of parenting books, approved of Cain’s advice that parents should view introverted children’s social style with understanding rather than fear.[5]


Cain is not seeking introvert domination but a better balance and inclusion of different work styles, acknowledging that big ideas and great leadership can come from either personality type.[11] Cain cites studies showing that introverts are better at leading proactive employees because they listen to and let them run with their ideas, while extroverts are better at leading passive employees because they have a knack for motivation and inspiration.[11] Cain has emphasized that the key to maximizing talents is to put yourself into the zone of stimulation that’s right for you.[10] The Harvard Independent’s Faith Zhang closed her review of Quiet with the observation that Cain’s point is not that introverts are inherently superior or that we should all shroud ourselves in solitude, but that diversity provides balance and makes for a fuller, richer world.[13]

The future

Cain asserts that introverts today are where women were in the 1950s and early 1960s—a population discounted for something that went to the core of who they were, but a population on the verge of coming into its own.[24] She add that we’re at the cusp of a real sea change in the way we understand this personality type,[24] Cain’s own website urging readers to “Join the Quiet Revolution.”[31] Beyond urging consciousness-raising about the harmfulness of culture’s bias against introversion, Cain urged companies to rethink hiring and promotion policies and office design, and encouraged educators to avoid constant group work and be trained in recognizing varieties of temperament to support quieter children to be functional and achieving for what they are rather than trying to “turn them into extroverts.”[32] Cain further urged research into determining which situations are best suited to introverts and extroverts and how they can most effectively partner with each other.[21]’t_Stop_Talking