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?
By SUSAN CAIN
Published: June 25, 2011
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