Skip to toolbar

Reviewed by Rachel Montgomery, The Pennsylvania State University

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain is an award-winning New York Times bestseller. Quiet is easy to read; the book flows well due to an eloquent balance achieved through the incorporation of personal reflections, token historical figures that model book themes, and both theoretical- and evidence-based research. Cain presents comprehensive support in building her case to establish the power of introverts, and the resulting multifaceted argument has both clarity and depth. Considering this topic through the lens of higher education, Cain’s perceptive exploration of the introversion-extroversion spectrum has possible implications for students, faculty, and administrators. Whether the topic is one of personal or professional interest, for higher education practitioners Quiet is a worthwhile read. The insights provided by Cain, on identifying and meeting the needs of introverts, have relevant implications for both the field of higher education and broader society.

Cain introduces the main topic of the book by providing a general overview of Carl Jung’s work on personality types in order to identify key terms (e.g., introvert, extrovert, ambivert). Jung published Psychological Types in 1921, “popularizing the terms introvert and extrovert as the central building blocks of personality” (p. 10). The idea that personality and temperament are central aspects of an individual’s identity personally generates questions regarding how introverted individuals navigate a college experience that is seemingly shaped by characteristics associated with a more extroverted population. In my opinion, Alexander Astin’s (1993) Input-Environment-Output (I-E-O) Model comes to mind as a possible method for higher education practitioners to explore personality and temperament as individual characteristics, subject to environmental influence, that link to specific outcomes. Keeping Astin’s I-E-O Model in mind while reading Quiet can provide readers with additional in-depth knowledge specific to introverted individuals operating within typical college and university environments.

Throughout the book Cain chose to repeatedly highlight several key differences between introverts and extroverts that occur in three specific areas: level of outside stimulation that is needed to function at an optimal level, work methods and timeliness, and social style. With the typical college experience being both educational and social in nature, understanding how introversion can influence personal preferences in these three areas can assist colleges and universities with supporting the development of a key group of constituents.  Following the introduction, the book is divided into four additional parts. Part one of Quiet references to the work of Warren Susman to explain the rise of the extrovert ideal that dominates current culture in the United States (p. 21-22). This section also provides examples of how educational environments and professional roles that are tailored toward the extrovert ideal (e.g., Harvard Business School, Wall Street lawyer) present multiple challenges for introverts operating within this type of culture.

In the second part of the book, Cain explores the extent to which introversion or extroversion may be an innate aspect of an individual’s biology. This section of the book was particularly intriguing as Cain incorporates the general debate of inborn temperament versus a developed personality, with additional references to the specific research on the activity of the brain and nervous system (p. 101). Specifically, Cain highlights the work of Dr. Jerome Kagan and Dr. Carl Schwartz on the correlations between introversion and “high-reactivity” (p. 98-103, 115-117), the work of Dr. Hans Eysenck on possible connections between introversion and over-stimulation (p. 122-123), and Dr. Elaine Aron’s work on the relationship between introversion and heightened “sensitivity” (p. 133-136). Cain ultimately asserts that these three perspectives, which are supported by specific research studies on human biology and neurology that consider the stages of human development, could be used to explain some of the characteristic responses of an introverted individual to varied levels of social and sensory stimulation. This information is particularly useful when considering the varying degrees that individuals are able to successfully adapt to environments that do not reflect their input characteristics.  

Part two of Quiet is rounded out with additional references to ongoing debates including:  the extent that people are affected by specific shorter-term situations; which aspects of personality are able to be developed; the extent to which aspects of personality are able to be developed; and, considerations for free will. According to Cain, these debated faucets of personality potentially explain why individuals may act in ways contradictory to their inborn temperament (p. 209). Cain also highlights the belief that optimal “person-environment fit” exists and that individual optimal fit is linked to personality (p. 254). This belief is explored in part three of the book, where Cain compares introvert-dominant cultures and sub-cultures to the extrovert culture of the United States.  The fourth and final part of the book focuses on the topic of leveraging and developing strengths in order to bridge the perceived gaps between the introverted and extroverted. In this final section, Cain also provides a number of suggestions on how to tailor environments and interactions to achieve optimal social and sensory stimulation for introverts.

In criticism of the book, the strength of the book in building a case for the power of introversion is also possibly the weakness of the book; the act of dismantling the extroverted ideal seems to create a trend toward overly emphasizing the negative aspects of extroversion. This is perhaps the manifestation of the author’s personal bias being an introvert, writing on the topic of introversion, aiming to justify the cultural value of introversion. Ultimately, the purpose of Quiet, to establish the power of introverts is effectively accomplished. The lens provided by Astin’s I-E-O Model generates both questions and ideas regarding the application of this knowledge in shaping college and university environments by highlighting the broad range of needs and interests demonstrated by the full introversion-extroversion spectrum. While a variety of support systems are already in place on college and university campuses, the insights provided by Cain call for increased intentionally in allocating support for introverts in higher education settings.

Sources:

Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college?: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers.