kitchen table math, the sequel: sitters

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Susan Cain's op-ed in today's Times reminds me of Katharine's book:
But shyness and introversion share an undervalued status in a world that prizes extroversion. Children’s classroom desks are now often arranged in pods, because group participation supposedly leads to better learning; in one school I visited, a sign announcing “Rules for Group Work” included, “You can’t ask a teacher for help unless everyone in your group has the same question.” Many adults work for organizations that now assign work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. As a society, we prefer action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable and even smarter than slow ones. As the psychologists William Hart and Dolores Albarracin point out, phrases like “get active,” “get moving,” “do something” and similar calls to action surface repeatedly in recent books.

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible (“Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?" asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.”) We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google’s Larry Page, or Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”

We even find “introverts” in the animal kingdom, where 15 percent to 20 percent of many species are watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines (sometimes called “sitters”) while the other 80 percent are “rovers” who sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings. Sitters and rovers favor different survival strategies, which could be summed up as the sitter’s “Look before you leap” versus the rover’s inclination to “Just do it!” Each strategy reaps different rewards.

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.


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.”


...sitter children are careful and astute, and tend to learn by observing instead of by acting. They notice scary things more than other children do, but they also notice more things in general. Studies dating all the way back to the 1960’s by the psychologists Jerome Kagan and Ellen Siegelman found that cautious, solitary children playing matching games spent more time considering all the alternatives than impulsive children did, actually using more eye movements to make decisions. Recent studies by a group of scientists at Stony Brook University and at Chinese universities using functional M.R.I. technology echoed this research, finding that adults with sitter-like temperaments looked longer at pairs of photos with subtle differences and showed more activity in brain regions that make associations between the photos and other stored information in the brain.
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.

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.”
Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?
Published: June 25, 2011
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School

Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School

Susan Cain's blog


Allison said...

It's a mistake to refer to "shyness and introversion" in the same breath.

Introversion, as defined by Meyer Briggs or the Big 5, is not about fear. Shyness is. As defined by Zimbardo and Henderson, who have done most of the canonical psych work in shyness and how people can overcome it, "Shyness may be defined experientially as discomfort and/or inhibition in interpersonal situations that interferes with pursuing one's interpersonal or professional goals."

There are many shy extroverts in the world. They are people who want very much to be social, who gain great energy and strength from teams, friends, social environments, but can't seem to get there easily on their own. Introverts may or may not be shy, but successful introverts like Wozniak are not shy to the point of avoidance, or they could not sell their ideas. There is no evidence that Einstein was shy as an adult--no one has written about Einstein having trouble interpersonally with his wife's differential geometry community (which was an intellectual community that could understand the math behind his GR), nor have they written about any interpersonal problems in his lengthy communications with Bohr or the others of the QM community.

Yes, shy children and introverted children both collapse and suffer greatly in modern schools where everyone is expected to socialize, verbally communicate emotional states, etc. But shy children need help in a way that introverts do not--they are NOT happy being shy.

Crimson Wife said...

What does introversion have to do with energy/activity level? All 3 of my kids are very high energy kids who are quite a bit more active than normal (not ADHD though). One is an extrovert while the other two are introverts.

I know plenty of sedentary extroverts as well...

SteveH said...

Educational ideas are not based on anything that can be refuted. Will any sort of argument get them to change their minds? Is what they do based on research or reality?

K-6 educators are driven only by not having a sage-on-the-stage, social group learning, and trying to make each child feel equal. All of their arguments are designed to support these things.

I've had lots of individual discovery alone, with homework. They don't care. They talk about different learning modes, but they only care about the visual, group variety. They don't let the kids choose. If you are not social and visually oriented, you're screwed. It's easy to poke holes in their ideas.

Their educational philosophy does not evolve from some sort of scientific process. It's the other way around. Research is used to support their philosophy. It's argument-proof.

They do what they do.

SteveH said...

" In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”"

But not all work can be done that way (education is a different animal). Most projects require organization and cooperation between individuals. You have to apply some sort of divide and conquer approach. A balance needs to be achieved between individual work and communication issues. There are also process concerns between a formal top-down process that might suffer from "analysis paralysis" to a bottom-up process that doesn't see the big picture - sometimes referred to as "extinct by instinct".

As Bonnie mentioned on another thread, there is a whole world out there focused on "agile" project development methods, but even these methods fall into different "working-together" scenarios. Introverts need to be careful when selecting jobs or else they might find themselves "scrum"-ed to death.

lgm said...

Introvert=loses energy when around people, needs to recharge if around too long
Extrovert=gains energy around people

Both can be high energy, hard charging, and have good people skills.

Anonymous said...

"What does introversion have to do with energy/activity level?"

Pretty much what lgm said.

I'll elaborate a bit. A good model is that introverts have a limited and small amount of 'interaction points' to use when interacting with other people. When those points are gone, the introvert pretty much needs to go be alone for a while to recharge.

Extraverts work almost in the opposite way ... after some time alone they need to go be around other people to recharge.

Now 'being alone' is a bit fluid. At a party, a depleted introvert might recharge if allowed to stand quietly somewhere and just watch for a while (and the introvert might actually be enjoying him/herself while doing this, so the extraverts trying to "help" by getting this person into the middle of things really aren't helping!). Or not. The introvert might instead need to go hang out in a room alone with books for a while.

Key takeaway point, though: Introverts are not broken extraverts. Introverts just work differently :-)

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

Introverts need to be careful when selecting jobs or else they might find themselves "scrum"-ed to death.

I love it!

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison's right about the introversion/shyness distinction --- and I think Susan Cain may in fact have made the distinction in her piece.

I'm not going to take the time to look it up, but I have the sense she may have suggested that an introverted child may have more likelihood of developing into a shy child under the wrong circumstances----

But I may be putting words into her mouth.

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison was the person who first explained shy extroverts to me, btw.

That combination had never occurred to me, and she's absolutely right.

One of the fascinating things about the brain, to me, is the fact that there's nothing to say that all your 'parts' go together.

As far as I can tell, we inherit most of our traits separately, which means you can inherit high extraversion AND high shyness or vice versa.

I figure this out on my own a few years back when I noticed that my own character didn't make a whole lot of sense....(smiley face)

Recently I've discovered there are a couple of books that discuss this state of affairs ----

Crimson Wife said...

None of my kids are cautious "sit-and-watch" types. My younger 2 are introverts- after being around people they either fall asleep or need to go off by themselves and read to "recharge their batteries". My oldest gets worked up by being around people and afterwords she's yakking my ear off or trying to get me to play a game with her or some other type of social interaction.

There may be a positive correlation between being cautious and being an introvert, but I don't think it's super-high.

Catherine Johnson said...

introversion vs. shyness

haven't read yet

Catherine Johnson said...

risk-taking is on a dimension with compulsivity: compulsivity-impulsivity dimensions

however, Eric Hollander says that the two qualities, though opposites behaviorally, are in fact connected and can "turn into" each other

Katharine Beals said...

"and I think Susan Cain may in fact have made the distinction in her piece"

Yes, she does, and I'm glad she does.

AS children strike me as generally not shy, and generally (if not always) introverted.

As for my book (thanks for linking, Catherine!), I discuss both types of personalities as floundering (in more ways than others do) under current trends in education.