Are the Contributions of Influential Introverts Under Recognized and Under Appreciated?

I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I recommend picking it up if you haven’t already read it, as it addresses a topic relevant not only to psychologists, but also educators, administrators, business leaders, and pretty much anyone who comes into contact with other human beings on a regular basis.

In Quiet, Cain argues that, since the Industrial Revolution, those of us living in traditional western societies have come to believe that, in order to be successful if life, one must possess the “right” type of personality. In order to find a suitable mate, one must be charming and funny. In order to land a job, one must be assertive and persuasive. And in order to have a successful career and earn promotion, one must be charismatic, gregarious, and an affable “team player.”

As such, Cain argues that western society favors and idealizes extroverts (those who primarily seek stimulation from the external environment and who prefer being in the company of others) at the expense of introverts (those who primarily seek stimulation from their own internal environment and who prefer spending time alone with their own thoughts).¹

As Cain makes clear throughout her book, our cultural bias against introverts has far-reaching implications, from the way managers structure their employees’ work environment to the way children are taught in school. Indeed, in recent years more and more companies have abandoned private offices and cubicles in favor of an “open office” environment, where employees can more easily engage in face-to-face collaboration. Similarly in the classroom, there has been increasing emphasis on collaborative and committee-like group work. As Cain describes, “In many elementary schools, the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher have been replaced with ‘pods’ of four or more desks pushed together to facilitate countless group learning activities. Even subjects like math and creative writing, which would seem to depend on solo flights of thought, are often taught as group projects.”

Are the contributions of introverts overshadowed by the contributions of extroverts?

As Cain points out, research suggests that there is no difference between introverts and extroverts when it comes to things like intelligence or leadership ability. Introverts and extroverts tend to thrive under different circumstances, but both are clearly capable of making lasting, meaningful contributions to society.

Nonetheless, society’s impression of the relative worth and value of each personality “type” can be distorted when more time and attention is paid to the contributions of influential extroverts.² This might occur in much the same way that extensive news coverage of plane crashes leads people to mistakenly conclude that traveling by air is more dangerous than traveling by automobile, when in reality the opposite is true (see research and articles on the availability heuristic).

So to try to gauge whether the contributions and accomplishments of extroverts receive greater attention than the contributions of introverts, I conducted a search in Google’s Ngram viewer for the names of several world famous introverts and extroverts.

Google Ngram charts the frequency of any word or phrase during a given year using a yearly count of n-grams (i.e., a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech) found in sources between 1800 and 2012. As such, Google Ngram can index the frequency with which a given name appears in published sources and thereby provide a measure of how much attention and recognition an individual received over a specific range of years.

I obtained a short list of influential introverts and extroverts from a 2012 article on Time.com, which identified the following individuals as some of “The Great Introverts and Extroverts of Our Time.”

Influential Introverts

  • Mohandas Gandhi, Revolutionary
  • Joe DiMaggio, Baseball Hall of Famer
  • Moses, Religious Leader³
  • Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State
  • Warren Buffett, Magnate
  • Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister
  • Bill Gates, CEO, Philanthropist
  • Mother Teresa, Nun, Missionary

Influential Extroverts

  • Bill Clinton, President
  • Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister
  • Steve Jobs, Innovator
  • Boris Yeltsin, President
  • Marie Antoinette, Queen
  • Muhammad Ali, Boxer
  • Winston Churchill, Politician
  • George W. Bush, Politician

To determine the total frequency of mentions for all influential introverts vs. all influential extroverts, I performed a combined search of all names within each group, as shown below:

Influential Introverts = Mohandas Gandhi + Joe DiMaggio + Rosa Parks + Hillary Clinton, etc.

Influential Extroverts = Bill Clinton + Margaret Thatcher + Steve Jobs + Boris Yeltsin, etc.

Figure 1 shows the combined frequency of mentions, according to Google Ngram, for all introverts relative to the combined frequency of mentions for all extroverts, from 1900 to 2008.

Figure 1: Combined frequency of mentions in Google Ngram for eight influential introverts compared to eight influential extroverts (1900 – 2008).

Ngram introverts

Figure 2: Cumulative frequency of mentions in Google Ngram for eight influential introverts compared to eight influential extroverts (1900 – 2008).

ngram introverts_cumulative

As you can clearly see, influential extroverts, as a group, consistently receive more frequent mentions (and therefore, by extension, more attention and recognition) than influential introverts.

Specifically, from 1999 to 2008 influential extroverts received, on average, 2.46 times more mentions in published books than influential introverts.

Moreover, between 1900 and 2008 average frequency of mentions for extroverts outnumbered average frequency of mentions for introverts by a factor of 7.12.

Under-reporting of introverts’ contributions and public perception of introverts: A vicious cycle?

Just because influential extroverts are mentioned more frequently in books, does this necessarily prove the existence of a cultural bias against introverts? Perhaps not, but the results shown here are nonetheless consistent with this interpretation.

Obviously the present analysis is far from perfect, as I’ve made no attempt to take into account the magnitude and lasting impact of each individual’s contribution to society. After all, extroverts might be more frequently mentioned in books because, as a group, their contributions had a more direct and substantial impact on western society. This is certainly a possibility given that the list of influential extroverts includes five world leaders, two of which are former U.S. presidents.

Yet even if the cultural bias against introverts is small and only part of the explanation for why influential extroverts receive more attention in books, it might still be enough to seriously distort the public’s perception of introverts (again, think about how disproportionate reporting of airplane crashes leads many people to mistakenly conclude that air travel is dangerous).

When more is written about the accomplishments and contributions of extroverts compared to introverts, people may come to believe (wrongly) that introverts are less accomplished, less competent leaders, and overall less valuable to society than extroverts (otherwise, wouldn’t more be written of them?). And if such a biased public perception were to then lead to even more under-reporting of important societal contributions from introverts, then we could see the development of a vicious cycle, where under-reporting of introverts’ accomplishments feeds negative public perception, which in turn drives further under-reporting of accomplishments, and on and on.

A quiet revolution for change

In discussing the rise of the extrovert ideal in the workplace and in schools, Susan Cain makes clear that we should not dismiss the very real advantages of collaboration in particular and extroversion more generally.

Whether introversion is superior to extroversion or vice versa is not the point. Rather, the point is that businesses, schools, and society in general can (and should) do a better job of recognizing the strengths associated with each and every point along the introversion-extroversion continuum.

And just as we all should practice to improve our efforts at collaboration, so too should we all practice to improve our efforts at deep, solitary thinking. Each of us, introverts and extroverts alike, should make a concerted effort not only to hone his/her unique talents, but also to learn new talents and skills from someone with an inborn temperament and set of life experiences different from our own.

Over the past 239 years, America has without a doubt made enormous strides toward greater equality and inclusiveness. Compared to fights for civil rights, gender equality, and marriage equality, it should be a simple matter for us to recognize the inherent value of both extroverts and introverts.

Furthermore, in a world with an ever increasing number of distractions (e.g., email notifications, text messages, social media notifications, etc.), we owe it to future generations to instill in our children, tomorrow’s scientists, creators, and innovators, at least a little respect and appreciation for time spent alone in deep thought.

Given the very real threat of climate change to the future of the human race, and the importance of deep, solitary thinking to genuine creativity, innovation, and ingenuity, the survival of the human race might very well depend on it.

Visit The Quiet Revolution, a new website and community co-founded by Susan Cain to help empower introverts.

 

Notes:

[1] The terms introvert and extrovert were first introduced by Carl Jung in his 1921 book, Psychological Types.

[2] I use quotation marks here because most contemporary psychologists think of introversion and extroversion as opposite ends of a spectrum, rather than as two distinct personality types.

[3] In my subsequent analysis, I replaced Moses with Rosa Parks for two reasons: (1) Analysis in Google Ngram revealed that Moses was mentioned far more frequently than any other individual (introvert or extrovert), thereby making him an extreme outlier; (2) Rosa Parks is prominently featured as an example of a famous introvert in Susan Cain’s book.

 

Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla 

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