E=mc², Paradise Lost, and the introvert in society

by John MacBeath Watkins

“Neither E=mc² nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.” That observation, from science writer Winifred Gallagher, illustrates the advantage to society of introverted individuals.

John Milton, as we discussed in this post, was a difficult man whose wife left him shortly after they were married, to return years later. Although he was, in addition to being the poet who wrote Paradise Lost, a public intellectual and a powerful advocate for Puritan causes, he could not have fulfilled the roles he did if he had been one of those people who need constant social interaction. Could the Secretary of Foreign Tongues for the Council of State have dealt with correspondence in a variety of languages had he been at parties all the time?

Yet our society valorizes extroversion, to the extent that introverts often try not to act like introverts. Susan Cain's new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, tries to tackle that problem by showing the advantages of introversion.

Introversion, by her definition, is not the same as shyness. The introverted are careful observers of their environment, and prefer less stimulation than extroverts. The shy are afraid of social judgements. I suppose by this definition, it would be sheer hell to be shy and extroverted, because you would want social interactions that terrified you, whereas shy introverts are happy to be alone with their thoughts.

This is important, because group interactions are less likely to lead to creativity than is quiet contemplation. I've experienced this myself, mainly in academics, because in the working world I've sought out the kind of jobs I can do with a certain amount of autonomy.

It strikes me that it is difficult to get a group to think through the logical permutations of a problem; they are more likely to accept the most obvious solution, because that is the easiest to agree to, and the extroverts in the group will want to move on once the obvious solution has been identified.

And why do introverts stay focused on the problem a little longer?

I have two cats, Bonney and Bunny. When there is a loud noise, like a telephone ringing, Bunny runs to confront it while Bonney runs to a convenient place of concealment. Bonney wants to know what is making the noise before she comes out to examine it. This is the essential difference between extrovert and introvert; a reaction to stimulation that is on the one hand confrontational and on the other, cautious.

From Cain's article in Time:

When these children are at four months, if you pop a balloon over their heads, they holler and pump their arms more than other babies do. At age 2, they proceed carefully when they see a radio-controlled toy robot for the first time. When they’re school age, they play matching games with more deliberation than their peers, considering all the alternatives at length and even using more eye movements to compare choices. Notice that none of these things — popping balloons, toy robots, matching games — has anything to do with people. In other words, these kids are not antisocial. They’re simply sensitive to their environments.

But if they’re not antisocial, these kids are differently social. According to the psychologist Elaine Aron, author of the book Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, 70% of children with a careful temperament grow up to be introverts, meaning they prefer minimally stimulating environments — a glass of wine with a close friend over a raucous party full of strangers. Some will grow up shy as well. Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shy people fear negative judgment, while introverts simply prefer less stimulation; shyness is inherently painful, and introversion is not. But in a society that prizes the bold and the outspoken, both are perceived as disadvantages.
Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/26/dont-call-introverted-children-shy/#ixzz1ku6IAPxD

Aron calls the approach of the introvert to the world "alert attention." In the animal world, some creatures are more bold in their explorations of their environment, while others hang back. That's why, when you're feeding birds, they don't all flock to the food at the same time. There's an obvious advantage to getting to the food first, and a less obvious advantage to seeing whether the food is in a dangerous place.

These differences seem to exist within most species, but of course, they exist to differing degrees. Mud hens will come to someone offering food first, then ducks once they've seen that the mud hens don't die, and seagulls are more standoffish than either, preferring to catch the food in the air rather than land and be vulnerable.

Cain, in researching her book, traveled the country documenting our social bias against the introverted, and found that "One of the most poignant moments was when an evangelical pastor I met at Saddleback confided his shame that 'God is not pleased' with him because he likes spending time alone."

I sort of doubt that. If you were God, and were constantly bothered by people wanting you to solve their problems or fix their football games, wouldn't you want a little quiet time?