Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic? — by Susan Cain

Here is an illuminating NY Times opinion piece on introversion, titled “Shyness: An Evolutionary Tactic?” The multitude of scientific studies mentioned in the piece nicely complement the literary finesse of “Caring for your introvert.”

Before everyone cringes at the article for its seemingly stereotypical perspective, it is important to note that there are always exceptions to the rule. Surely enough, I myself know a lot of brilliant extroverts and equally many lazy, amateurish introverts (me?). However, exceptions do not negate the rule, but prove it. Our “personal” experience carries little weight against the general pattern  discovered by large-scale studies like these. To say that, “But I know just a genius yet is very social” is no more a counter argument than to say that, “But my grandpa smokes a lot yet does not have lung cancer.” That, we must be reminded, proves nothing.


Both extrovert (rover, or risk-taker) and introvert (sitter, or heed-taker) are crucial to our evolutionary survival.

IN an illustrative experiment, David Sloan Wilson, a Binghamton evolutionary biologist, dropped metal traps into a pond of pumpkinseed sunfish. The “rover” fish couldn’t help but investigate — and were immediately caught. But the “sitter” fish stayed back, making it impossible for Professor Wilson to capture them. Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived. But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. “Anxiety” about the trap saved the fishes’ lives.

Next, Professor Wilson used fishing nets to catch both types of fish; when he carried them back to his lab, he noted that the rovers quickly acclimated to their new environment and started eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this situation, the rovers were the likely survivors. “There is no single best … [animal] personality,” Professor Wilson concludes in his book, “Evolution for Everyone,” “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”

As introverts have always secretly believed, they do better in school…

Once they reach school age, many sitter children use such traits to great effect. Introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, stay on task, and work accurately, earn disproportionate numbers of National Merit Scholarship finalist positions and Phi Beta Kappa keys, according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, a research arm for the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator — even though their I.Q. scores are no higher than those of extroverts. Another study, by the psychologists Eric Rolfhus and Philip Ackerman, tested 141 college students’ knowledge of 20 different subjects, from art to astronomy to statistics, and found that the introverts knew more than the extroverts about 19 subjects — presumably, the researchers concluded, because the more time people spend socializing, the less time they have for learning.

… and are also more creative:

THE psychologist Gregory Feist found that many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward. Steve Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, is a prime example: Mr. Wozniak describes his creative process as an exercise in solitude. “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” he writes in “iWoz,” his autobiography. “They’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone … Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Plus, contrary to what is popularly believed (by introverts themselves), they are not inferior leaders either. (Whether people recognize that is, of course, another issue.)

Another advantage sitters bring to leadership is a willingness to listen to and implement other people’s ideas. A groundbreaking study led by the Wharton management professor Adam Grant, to be published this month in The Academy of Management Journal, found that introverts outperform extroverts when leading teams of proactive workers — the kinds of employees who take initiative and are disposed to dream up better ways of doing things. Professor Grant notes that business self-help guides often suggest that introverted leaders practice their communication skills and smile more. But, he told me, it may be extrovert leaders who need to change, to listen more and say less.

And finally, let’s be clear that, objectively speaking, all personality traits just are what they are. To indicate which one is better necessarily presupposes a personal preference. If you enjoy being in a lot of relationships (or a lot of accidents), for example, then being an extrovert is clearly the right choice. But, meanwhile, some people just don’t.

Relaxed and exploratory, the rovers have fun, make friends and will take risks, both rewarding and dangerous ones, as they grow. According to Daniel Nettle, a Newcastle University evolutionary psychologist, extroverts are more likely than introverts to be hospitalized as a result of an injury, have affairs (men) and change relationships (women). One study of bus drivers even found that accidents are more likely to occur when extroverts are at the wheel.

So, if you are in search of a steady relationship, go find an introvert now available in a bookstore near you! (Go quick, before the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatrist community convince everyone that introversion is pathologic–just like what they did to homosexuality in the last century.)

What would the world would look like if all our sitters chose to medicate themselves? The day may come when we have pills that “cure” shyness and turn introverts into social butterflies — without the side effects and other drawbacks of today’s medications. (A recent study suggests that today’s S.S.R.I.’s not only relieve social anxiety but also induce extroverted behavior.) The day may come — and might be here already — when people are as comfortable changing their psyches as the color of their hair. If we continue to confuse shyness with sickness, we may find ourselves in a world of all rovers and no sitters, of all yang and no yin.

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