It was Monday, 5.17pm, the working day was coming to a close. I was eyeing the clock in the corner of my computer when, in quick succession, two emails arrived. The first offered me “reputation management in an age of opportunity”, while the second alerted me to “The psychology of influence — Proven ways to communicate effectively, and influence others to get win-win results”. From the latter message a man in a suit, proffering a firm handshake and keen eye contact, stared confidently out at me. “He’s obviously done the course and is reaping the benefits, climbing the ladder,” I thought. Or not.

What the psychologists of influence and the reputation managers don’t know is that I’ve just read Susan Cain’s “Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”. In fact, Cain begins her book with a chapter devoted to the rise of what social historian Warren Susman calls the shift from a culture of character to a culture of personality, where sales skill is a virtue and charismatic leadership means everything. Cain suggests that one third to half of Americans are introverts – and, presumably, in need of reassurance to deal with the other half.

The study of temperament is not new. In the fourth century BC Hippocrates theorised that four bodily fluids — blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – were the basic determinants of mood and behaviour types. On this basis, in the second century AD Galen developed his theory of the four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic. Cain recasts the four temperaments as two types of introversion (stable-phlegmatic or neurotic-melancholic) and two types of extroversion (stable-sanguine or neurotic-choleric), though without explanation. Her recasting conflates temperaments with psychological disorders, without giving much space to the temperaments as such or the different types of neurosis. Another possibility is that a neurosis, or vice, is so predominant that it is difficult to discern temperament type in the first place. Cain also makes introversion and extroversion archetypes into which temperaments are subsumed, again without making the case for such a move.

Temperament has in the last 100 years or so been a field of renewed study. Psychologists like Ivan Pavlov, Hans Jürgen Eysenck, William Schutz, and educationalists such as Rudolf Steiner have made significant contributions. We now have the “five personality types” and the “type A and type B” personality theory, to name two (Cain draws heavily from the big five personality types and Jungian ideals). Cain has accurately nailed this shift towards personality theories rather than temperaments. Another interesting contribution in this field, reflected in some of Cain’s themes, comes from Ian McGilchrist. In 2012 the former consultant psychiatrist and clinical director published his 544 page The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Whether such figures have arrived at an authentic understanding and presentation of temperament, and more deeply, human nature, is another matter.

Cain notes that some contemporary psychologists view temperament as the inborn, biologically based emotions and behaviours noted in early childhood. Personality is the more complex result of cultural influences and personal experience. Thus, temperament is the foundation, personality the building. Yet the field of epigenetics is telling us more about how nurture and environment affect biological nature – through DNA methylation and histone modification – making the development of temperament-personality more of a two-way street. Studies have suggested that epigenetic changes occur relating to risk-taking, memory, and reactions to stress. Interested readers might want to watch the BBC documentary, “The truth about personality” as an introduction.

Quiet has 11 chapters divided into four parts. The most fundamental chapters are the fourth, “Is temperament destiny” (the nature v nurture debate), and fifth, “Beyond temperament” (the role of free will). These chapters are peppered with numerous fascinating psychological and neuroimaging studies that tell us about the brain’s limbic system (particularly the amygdala), cerebrum, and nervous system reactions to different stimuli and social situations. However, one might easily find studies that suggest the contrary as new investigative tools are developed, and better studies are designed. Cain is not a biological determinist; she believes in free will and the dynamic interaction between our nature and our environment. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about the integration of rational human nature and the body as opposed to dualistic conceptions of the human being.

Cain’s book is full of interesting examples to explain a point; these are drawn from support group meetings, interviews with Harvard business school students and Asian-Americans, visits to a large Evangelical centre, the trials and solutions of married couples, the behaviour of millionaires during the financial crisis of 2008, the quirks of university professors and parents with their children. On one occasion she writes casually about nervously lying in bed with her boyfriend on the morning she was due to speak before a large audience. On another occasion the former corporate lawyer tells how she helped an introverted lady pluck up the courage to divorce her husband. I found these personal examples less helpful contributions to the book.

Other chapters, such as “When collaboration kills creativity”, “Franklin was a politician but Eleanor spoke out of conscience” (Cain avoids mentioning that one of introvert Eleanor Roosevelt’s causes was Margaret Sanger’s racist eugenics by means of contraception), and a whole section on “How to Love, How to Work”, may help readers apply the knowledge about introversion and extroversion to daily lives and relationships.

Cain notes that there is a rare type of person whose temperament lives right in the middle of introversion and extroversion – the ambivert. She mentions this only in passing, yet it seems like another ideal that people aspire to, alongside that of the charismatic and sociable xtrovert. Is the ambivert the new extrovert, perhaps?

One of my favourite recent TV series was NBC’s Heroes. Some people have special powers like time travel, flight, premonitions, mindreading, or super strength. They have to avoid being discovered, and all are interconnected in one way or another in the mission to “save the cheerleader, save the world”. An underlying theme is evolutionary biology – these select few with special powers are the next stage in human evolution. One character, Sylar, is unique as his power consists in the ability to take the powers of others by eating their brains. Another, Peter Petrelli, has the power to absorb the powers of those around him without subtracting or harming others. Sylar and Peter are two of the most important and powerful characters. Sylar and Peter are, by different means, ambiverts — not restricted to one mode of being or the other, but having it all.

Two acquaintances who have used online dating sites both made the same comment: everyone wants to present themselves as fun, sociable, open to new experiences. This is reinforced by photos of them parachuting, posing on ski slopes, crouching down next to tigers, posing in nightclubs with a drink in each hand. Everyone also presents themselves as: thoughtful, a good listener, equally enjoying quiet nights in with wine, time at home with family, walks in the countryside, lazy Sundays reading the papers by an open fire.

Is everyone now an ambivert? Or are the people selling themselves to unknown audiences just trying to cover every base? Is it that people now don’t know what sort of person they are, but only the sorts of stuff they enjoy? Are they, like Sylar or Peter, trying to have it all? One possible solution Cain mentions is Professor Brian Little’s “Free Trait” theory. Little suggests that we are born with fixed and free traits. This means we have a fixed inner disposition that we can act beyond and contrary to for the sake of meaningful and important personal projects – like finding a spouse. Interestingly, psychologists Dan McAdams and Jennifer Pals have proposed a new “big five” personality model that seeks an “integrative science of the whole person”, taking into account the role of context, culture, and adaptation.  

The online dating example and Cain’s book both suggest that expressions of personality are adaptable, depending on context, as a means to some perceived good end. For the online daters it’s the hope of love and marriage. For Cain, it’s power – the clue is in the subtitle on the book itself.

Let’s go back to Heroes. As I mentioned, much of the theory behind Heroes is evolutionary biology – superhumans are the next stage in the progress of the human race. Evolutionary biology and neo-Darwinian ideas about survival subtly underpin Cain’s book, particularly in the many studies presented. Some theists and also biologists would take issue with the way she presents this as a matter of fact. Her references to religious figures did not impress this reader (Jesus Christ superstar crowd pleaser, whose father is dominant and assertive, is a particularly ridiculous example).

Contemporary evolutionary theories easily lend themselves to Quiet’s theme of the introvert’s power, influence, and success within the corporate, financial, and business world (Cain’s sections on married couples and parenting are a saving grace here). This is made more apparent by the absence of discussion about virtue, which would have been well placed considering Cain’s note about the shift away from character to personality. Including philosophers like Aristotle, Aquinas and Alasdair McIntyre could redress this. Yet when Cain writes “power” she seems to mean things like prudence, fortitude, perseverance, patience, moderation, a sense of justice, wisdom, silence – in other words, virtues.

What type of book is Quiet? Cain says the perspective of the introvert is that of observer, noting the behaviours of others. Her book is rather like that. Like books by Jon Ronson and Malcolm Gladwell, it sits comfortably in the self-help, social and culture studies section of Amazon and Waterstones. Quiet has the potential to achieve its aim of making introverts feel secure and comfortable in their own skin. It suggests strategies for improving, surviving and thriving in cultures that idealise the extrovert and give little value to simply being oneself. But the arguments Cain uses to achieve this ought to be scrutinised. Quiet is about introversion, but it is the quieter subplots and underpinning themes that readers should also be attentive to as they read.

Daniel Blackman is a theology and ethics graduate. Since 2010 he has been working in education, research, and campaigning on family issues. He is published in journals, papers, and magazines in the UK and America. 

Daniel Blackman is a theology and ethics graduate. Since 2010 he has been working in education, research, and campaigning on family issues. He is published in journals, papers, and magazines in the UK...