How extrovert bias is killing creativity

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It’s no secret that we live in a society that increasingly favours extroversion over quiet reflection. But can this be contributing to the death of creativity?

In both our personal and professional lives we deem characteristics typical of extroverts as necessary for success: an outgoing attitude, an aptitude for networking, confidence in large groups of people. Whether it’s navigating the boardroom, juggling multiple chats on instant messenger, or socialising in a bar, extroverts seem to thrive.

But what of those who prefer quiet spaces and introspection? What happens if the mere thought of a loud, crowded watering hole is enough to make you long for the sanctuary of your bed and a nice book? What of the introverts?

There’s a widely-held misconception about introverts: that they are shy or antisocial. In a popular 2012 TED Talk entitled ‘The Power of Introverts’, author and lecturer Susan Cain explains the difference between shyness and introversion. “Shyness,” she says, “is a fear of social judgment.” However, introversion is related to how one reacts to social stimulus.

In essence: extroverts crave large amounts of social stimulation – they feel most alive when they are in large groups of people and gain the most gratification from things which are outside of the self. And yes, extroverts can also be shy and thoughtful but, unlike introverts, being around groups of people makes them feel energised and more creative. Meanwhile, introverts feel most capable when they are in a quiet environment, and take pleasure in solitary activities like reading, painting, and fishing. They also tend to be more analytical and observant.

Some studies suggest there is a physical difference between the brains of introverts and extroverts, stating that introverts have more activity in parts of the brain that are associated with learning, and that their low threshold to dopamine (a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s pleasure centre) means they need less of it than extroverts do. If this is true, it could explain why large social events make extroverts happy while leaving introverts feeling exhausted. That is not to say that introverts do not enjoy the company of their friends and colleagues. An introvert might feel just as much at home when they are having dinner with a small group of friends as when they are alone with their thoughts. Introverts do enjoy socialising and expressing their myriad ideas, but they need space and a certain degree of autonomy in order to conceive of those ideas in the first place.

Just as psychiatrist Carl Jung (who first defined introversion) suggested, there is no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert: rather, each person has a varying degree of each, with one feature being the more dominant. Even Katharine Cooks Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the creators of the Myers-Briggs test which is now a popular questionnaire in business to test employees’ personality and reasoning types, agreed that no person could be absolutely introverted or absolutely extroverted, although most people did favour one or the other.

Some studies suggest that there is a physical difference between the brains of introverts and extroverts

 

The problem seems that our culture favours constant teamwork. We’ve moved from individual offices to open plan spaces, and schools seem to be encouraging students to work in groups more and more. While this works for extroverts, introverts might find their voices are being drowned out by the voices of those more outgoing, when their ideas might be just as valid as those of their peers. It’s not a level playing field, and it is a system which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider studies have found that up to half of us fall on the introverted end of the spectrum.

Because of this bias, many introverts may find themselves making self-negating choices without being entirely aware of the reasons behind them. They may feel guilty for wanting to enjoy their solitary pursuits. The quiet teenager who would rather spend Saturday night reading will choose to go to a noisy nightclub with her peers to avoid being socially excluded. The soft-spoken employee will suffer an impromptu brainstorming session because he fears that asking for a little extra time to come up with a few ideas alone may make him seem unfit to do his job.

What’s more, the bias towards group work often fails to account for the importance of group dynamics in any interaction. In any given group of people, there is a tendency to try and emulate the more prominent, charismatic members, who are usually extroverts. But a person with an outgoing temperament does not necessarily have more intelligence than those who are more reserved. This means that in situations where innovative solutions are needed, some great ideas can be overlooked.

So how did we get here? Cain suggests that as we have made the move from small rural communities to large cities, we have increasingly felt under pressure to prove ourselves in crowds of strangers, which has led to the cult of personality we engender today. The danger in this, she suggests, is that since solitude is a crucial factor for creativity, we are missing out on the ideas of a large chunk of the populace when we do not cater to the introverts among us.

Should we abolish teamwork completely? Certainly not. There is a lot of value in the sharing of values and ideas, and working in teams is often a blessing for those people who are not too self-motivated and feed off the enthusiasm of others. Undoubtedly, an informal working environment where interaction is encouraged is often more productive than a strict, quiet space where everyone must keep their head down.

However, just as there is no joy in constant solitude, there is certainly no joy in constantly having an audience, and so ensuring a balance is struck is vital to creating an environment that is nurturing for all. By understanding that introverts and extroverts simply respond to social situations in a different way, we can begin to find ways to create homes, offices and places of leisure which do not put pressure on people to be whom they are not, but instead encourage them to be creative and expressive in their own different ways.

[This article was first published on The Sunday Circle in July 2015]
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