Inside Story

Quiet, please

Are we so impressed by the power of collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue working in groups, asks Jock Given

Jock Given 10 April 2012 2928 words

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
By Susan Cain | Penguin | $29.95

The Master: A Personal Portrait of Bart Cummings
By Les Carlyon | Pan Macmillan | $59.95

IMAGINE a line-up of very young babies, all just four months old. Your job is to predict which ones will turn out to be introverts and which ones extroverts.

Experimentation is allowed, so you decide to test their reactions to sounds, sights and smells. Tape-recorded voices are played and balloons are popped. Colourful mobiles dance in front of their eyes. Cotton swabs are doused in alcohol and placed near their noses.

One in every five babies cries lustily and pumps its arms and legs. These will be the extroverts, right? And the two in five who stay placid, moving their limbs a little but without all the drama, will be the introverts? (The other two in five fall between the extremes.)

Wrong, says Jerome Kagan, a professor at the Laboratory for Child Development at Harvard, whose research and ideas are one of the foundations of Susan Cain’s Quiet. Kagan has been running longitudinal studies of temperament for decades. He conducted these very experiments with young babies, then brought the same children back to his lab for more tests at two, four, seven and eleven years old.

Kagan found that the infant limb-pumpers were more likely to turn into quiet, introverted children, and the quietest babies tended to become relaxed, confident extroverts. This seems counter­intuitive, but it was just what Kagan had been expecting. He had a hypothesis about the biology of the very responsive babies, whom he called “high-reactive,” and the unresponsive ones, whom he billed “low-reactive.”

The sensitivity of the nervous systems of the high-reactives seemed to be linked not just to noticing novel or scary things but also to noticing in general. To high-reactive babies and children, the world could be impossibly stimulating. They would see danger where others didn’t, and complexity where others found simplicity or nothing at all. They would be at home with puzzles, the more complicated the better. They would sense rejection where others felt acceptance and jubilation when others were unmoved, be alert and absorbed when others were bored, and feel deeply about things that others hardly noticed. High-reactives brought “an extra degree of nuance to everyday experiences.”

Children with this temperament could find it hard to fit in. Cain quotes one high-reactive child’s solution to the everyday puzzle of how to share toys in a group: “Alphabetise their last names and let the person closest to A go first.” (My prediction: The rest of the kids would instinctively implement a shambolic first-come-first-served scheme, and the extroverts would get the best toys. The high-reactive would despair, feeling deeply that alphabetising surnames was a fairer way to do it. She would be bewildered that others couldn’t see it and seek solace in inner worlds and private games where she could control things better.)

Despite the strength of his conclusions, Kagan insisted that high- and low-reactivity were not the only routes to introversion and extroversion. Indeed, when Cain went to interview him, he got testy about how people over-simplified his results in ways that implied a person’s temperament was necessarily their destiny. A child’s environment and experiences go to work on its temperamental predisposition. High-reactives don’t all end up intense introverts, although a quarter of Kagan’s apparently suffer from “social anxiety disorder,” a chronic and disabling form of shyness.

According to one of his “colleagues and protégés,” however, the influence of a high- or low-reactive temperament “never fully disappears in adulthood.” Carl Schwartz, director of the Developmental Neuroimaging and Psychopathology Research Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, retested Kagan’s kids as adults. In Cain’s words, he found that “we can stretch our personalities but only up to a point. Our inborn temperaments influence us, regardless of the lives we lead.”

SUSAN CAIN says that a third to a half of all Americans are introverts. Through history, the world’s introverts have included people like Moses, Albert Einstein and Charlie Brown.

Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, took care of them in the desert for forty years and turned up the Ten Commandments. How? Not by giving PowerPoint presentations to venture capitalists and setting big, hairy, audacious goals. He climbed a mountain and took careful dictation.

Albert Einstein once said, “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork,” and on another occasion, “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.” And Charlie Brown’s introversion, according to one website, means that “he constantly rehearse[s] what he will say to the little redheaded girl” but also “prevents him from actually delivering the goods.”

Cain is an introvert herself and she’s naturally drawn to these people. But she needed to learn more about extroverts, so she headed off to “the Spiritual Capital of Extroversion,” Harvard Business School. Students go there partly to study but mainly to build a personal network that will last a lifetime. By day, they are consumed in group exercises. By night, socialising is “an extreme sport.” “Isn’t there anyone on the quieter side?” Cain asks one student. “I couldn’t tell you,” he replies.

The essence of a Harvard Business School education is to teach students to “act confidently and make decisions in the face of incomplete information.” Of course, no decision-maker will ever have complete information, even in hindsight. So what should they do? Act now? Or ask more questions, collect more data? “By hesitating, do you risk losing others’ trust and your own momentum?” asks Cain. “If you speak firmly on the basis of bad information, you can lead your people into disaster. But if you exude uncertainty, then morale suffers, funders won’t invest, and your organisation can collapse.”

The choice takes us some way beyond introversion and extroversion, but Cain believes this aspect of our personality is especially important.

HORSES are the most sensitive of creatures, but two dozen of them galloping down the home straight at Flemington make a sound like thunder. The Melbourne Cup is watched and listened to all over Australia and the world, but the Cups King, Bart Cummings, is a quiet man.

“He never said a lot, but he listened a lot,” jockey Roy Higgins told Les Carlyon, a journalist who has watched Cummings close up since he started winning Melbourne Cups in the 1960s and has now written a “personal portrait” of The Master.

“He’d throw you a question relevant to the horse, a short, sharp question, and he’d just stop and listen,” says Higgins. “Most of the time he wouldn’t be looking you in the eye – he’d probably be looking at a horse walking around or having a pick of grass. Everything was dead quiet and he’d take in every bloody word you said. He could absorb.”

First taking Australia’s richest race with Light Fingers in 1965, Cummings has trained a Melbourne Cup winner, on average, every four years since. Twelve Cups is “what elevates him to the highest place in the pantheon,” says Carlyon. It’s “as freakish as Bradman.”

If Susan Cain and Jerome Kagan are right, Cummings could have been a hell of a limb-pumper at four months. He seems a classic introvert and Carlyon’s portrait is full of quietude. The 1950 Cup winner trained by Bart’s father Jim, Comic Court, was “the quietest loveliest” horse. The son’s “exquisite colt” Beau Zam was “the sweetest of horses”; 1996 Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup winner Saintly “the most docile, quietist horse ever,” at least until he stepped onto a racetrack.

Bart’s father taught him “that horses were a puzzle waiting to be worked out and Cummings, who had extraordinary powers of observation (and not just with horses), was always staring and speculating, cross-examining his track riders, picking up hoofs, changing bits, looking in the unlikeliest places for the clue that might unlock the puzzle.” Cummings “lived in his solitary world and answered only to himself. He was patient to the point of being perverse about it,” though that should not obscure his “fanatical intensity” or ruthless competitive spirit.

A couple of times we see and hear Bart let things out, but they are hardly fireworks. In 1988, when Beau Zam won the St Leger at Randwick by ten lengths, Cummings, unusually, led in his own horse. “Too much post-race hysteria tends to frighten the horses and the horses are the real heroes,” Carlyon thinks.

Then in 2010, after perhaps the best horse he’d ever trained, So You Think, was sold by its owner and lost to his stable while Cummings was in hospital, Bart said the owner’s racing manager “talked [the owner] into it while I wasn’t there. He did it while I was in hospital – that was the worst part.” This was not just any owner, it was Cummings’s most successful, Dato’ Tan Chin Nam, for whom the Master won four Cups: Think Big (twice, in 1974 and 75), Saintly and Viewed (2008). They’d sought and worked horses together for four decades, found one “about as near to perfect as possible,” and suddenly it was gone.

In the recession of the late 1980s, Cummings was almost ruined financially when a scheme to buy yearlings and sell off units to investors collapsed. A fire sale of the horses raised $11 million less than the debts run up to buy them. Cummings had shaken hands with his partners and thought they were working together in a joint venture; the Federal Court found the debts were all Bart’s. The Master was on his own.

A scheme of arrangement was worked out with creditors. Cummings went back to what he was best at. Let’s Elope won the 1991 Caulfield and Melbourne Cups double.

INTROVERSION is not shyness, although they might look the same. Shyness, says Cain, is “the fear of social disapproval or humiliation.” Introversion is just a “preference for environments that are not over-stimulating,” what writer Winifred Gallagher calls “the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them.”

So, Cain argues, we can have shy extroverts like Barbra Streisand, a larger-than-life personality paralysed by stage fright, and non-shy introverts like Bill Gates, who apparently keeps to himself but is not fussed by the opinions of others.

Introversion and extroversion are not inherently good or bad, as the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator stresses. A favourite tool for those off-site corporate team-building exercises, Myers-Briggs identifies an individual’s preference for introversion or extroversion as one of four personal “dichotomies” specified or implicit in Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types.

Myers-Briggs calls it “Favourite World.” Do you prefer to focus on the outer world (extroversion) or on your own inner world (introversion)? The other three are about information (sensing/intuition), decisions (thinking/feeling) and structure (judging/perceiving). These attributes can be combined in sixteen different ways, corresponding to different personality types. Charlie Brown, for example, was probably an ISFP: “a very low need to lead and control others, and yet driven by a desire to see everything – plants, animals, and people – living harmoniously,” according to one description.

Explains the Myers & Briggs Foundation:

Personality type is what you prefer when you are using your mind or focusing your attention. Studies and experience have shown that there are consistent patterns for each person. For example, one pair of preferences is about whether you choose to spend more time in the outside world or more time in your inner world. We call this a preference for Extroversion or Introversion. Neither is wrong. You can do both. You just prefer one.

Read the publicity and op-eds about Quiet and you get the impression Susan Cain wants an open season on extroversion. Out with brainstorming sessions, groupthink, open-plan offices and the bankers who led us into the GFC without listening to the quiet guys who saw it coming.

She doesn’t. She cites a lot of research studies that simply found brainstorming is not what it’s cracked up to be. Loudly expressed ideas prevail over good ones. Pumped-up participants believe they have performed better than they have. But getting the team together to toss around ideas might still be a worthy goal, so long as a feast of great, fresh ideas is not thought to be the principal benefit.

Cain also cites research studies that show brainstorming does work online. When online groups are properly managed, they do better than individuals, and the larger the group the better it performs. Academic researchers who work together electronically, from different physical locations, have also been found to produce research that goes on to become more influential than the findings of those working alone or collaborating face-to-face.

That’s a huge qualification to the initial idea about the ineffectiveness of brainstorming. The “world that can’t stop talking” has a lot to do with the pervasiveness of information technology, but IT is also bringing productive new ways for introverts to contribute alongside its extroverted demands for people to be noisier.

Cain just worries that we’re now so impressed by the power of online collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue all group work at the expense of solo thought. “Introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation… We failed to realise that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office.”

As for the quiet guys who anticipated the GFC, Australians could point out that the developed country that got through it best decided to “Go Early, Go Hard, Go Households.” Extroverts got us into this and now they had a plan to get us out of it.

Cain would probably not demur. She’s not asking us to stop doing things. She married an extrovert herself and wouldn’t have it any other way. Her point is just that, at least in her country, the United States, “we tend to overvalue buzz and discount the risk of rewards-sensitivity: we need to find a balance between action and reflection.”

The final chapters of the book are full of quiet, practical advice for people whose natural disposition is to “stop to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them.”

THE paradox of Bart Cummings, says Les Carlyon, is that “a shy man, a man happy in his own solitary world, a man not given to speeches, is the racing figure everyone always wants to interview. The man who shies away from the media has somehow become a media darling. The world changes and he stays the same; other people look dated and he looks timeless.”

Cummings belongs “to the era of Don Bradman, when it was thought proper for sports heroes to be humble, and when they didn’t use social networking sites and a forest of exclamation marks to tell us about their trip to the supermarket.” Yet “Bart” has not needed a surname since he won his first three Melbourne Cups in a row in the mid 1960s. “Racing [is] smaller and he [is] bigger.”

Susan Cain has learned to front the corporate training sessions and conferences that once terrified her. She knows she wouldn’t have got a contract to write Quiet unless the publisher had thought she could do chat shows and book launches to sell it. “It’s not true that I’m no longer shy; I’ve just learned to talk myself down from the ledge.” She’s even done a TED Talk, one of those Everests of Internet Age extroversion.

At a workshop at the Public Speaking–Social Anxiety Center of New York, the instructor told her: “There are only a few people out there who can completely overcome their fears, and they all live in Tibet.” The secret to life, Cain now thinks, “is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”

Bart Cummings has spent a long time in the spotlight but a longer time on dark mornings watching those big, sensitive puzzles gallop around Morphettville and Flemington and Randwick.

“You had a tear in your eye?” asked a reporter after Saintly won his Melbourne Cup:

Cummings: Yeah, didn’t have enough on it…

Reporter: Some said Saintly couldn’t stay?

Cummings: He told me to tell you he can now…

Reporter: How good is Saintly?

Cummings: Quite a nice horse. •