Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain (2012)
Part II. YOUR BIOLOGY, YOUR SELF?
Chapter 6. “FRANKLIN WAS A POLITICIAN, BUT ELEANOR SPOKE OUT OF CONSCIENCE”
Why Cool Is Overrated
A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers.
Easter Sunday, 1939. The Lincoln Memorial. Marian Anderson, one of the most extraordinary singers of her generation, takes the stage, the statue of the sixteenth president rising up behind her. A regal woman with toffee-colored skin, she gazes at her audience of 75,000: men in brimmed hats, ladies in their Sunday best, a great sea of black and white faces. “My country ’tis of thee,” she begins, her voice soaring, each word pure and distinct. “Sweet land of liberty.” The crowd is rapt and tearful. They never thought this day would come to pass.
And it wouldn’t have, without Eleanor Roosevelt. Earlier that year, Anderson had planned to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., but the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the hall, rejected her because of her race. Eleanor Roosevelt, whose family had fought in the Revolution, resigned from the DAR, helped arrange for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial—and ignited a national firestorm. Roosevelt was not the only one to protest, but she brought political clout to the issue, risking her own reputation in the process.
For Roosevelt, who seemed constitutionally unable to look away from other people’s troubles, such acts of social conscience were nothing unusual. But others appreciated how remarkable they were. “This was something unique,” recalled the African-American civil rights leader James Farmer of Roosevelt’s brave stand. “Franklin was a politician. He weighed the political consequences of every step that he took. He was a good politician, too. But Eleanor spoke out of conscience, and acted as a conscientious person. That was different.”
It was a role she played throughout their life together: Franklin’s adviser, Franklin’s conscience. He may have chosen her for just this reason; in other ways they were such an unlikely pair.
They met when he was twenty. Franklin was her distant cousin, a sheltered Harvard senior from an upper-crust family. Eleanor was only nineteen, also from a moneyed clan, but she had chosen to immerse herself in the sufferings of the poor, despite her family’s disapproval. As a volunteer at a settlement house on Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side, she had met children who were forced to sew artificial flowers in windowless factories to the point of exhaustion. She took Franklin with her one day. He couldn’t believe that human beings lived in such miserable conditions—or that a young woman of his own class had been the one to open his eyes to this side of America. He promptly fell in love with her.
But Eleanor wasn’t the light, witty type he’d been expected to marry. Just the opposite: she was slow to laugh, bored by small talk, serious-minded, shy. Her mother, a fine-boned, vivacious aristocrat, had nicknamed her “Granny” because of her demeanor. Her father, the charming and popular younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt, doted on her when he saw her, but he was drunk most of the time, and died when Eleanor was nine. By the time Eleanor met Franklin, she couldn’t believe that someone like him would be interested in her. Franklin was everything that she was not: bold and buoyant, with a wide, irrepressible grin, as easy with people as she was cautious. “He was young and gay and good looking,” Eleanor recalled, “and I was shy and awkward and thrilled when he asked me to dance.”
At the same time, many told Eleanor that Franklin wasn’t good enough for her. Some saw him as a lightweight, a mediocre scholar, a frivolous man-about-town. And however poor Eleanor’s own self-image, she did not lack for admirers who appreciated her gravitas. Some of her suitors wrote grudging letters of congratulations to Franklin when he won her hand. “I have more respect and admiration for Eleanor than any girl I have ever met,” one letter-writer said. “You are mighty lucky. Your future wife is such as it is the privilege of few men to have,” said another.
But public opinion was beside the point for Franklin and Eleanor. Each had strengths that the other craved—her empathy, his bravado. “E is an Angel,” Franklin wrote in his journal. When she accepted his marriage proposal in 1903, he proclaimed himself the happiest man alive. She responded with a flood of love letters. They were married in 1905 and went on to have six children.
Despite the excitement of their courtship, their differences caused trouble from the start. Eleanor craved intimacy and weighty conversations; he loved parties, flirting, and gossip. The man who would declare that he had nothing to fear but fear itself could not understand his wife’s struggles with shyness. When Franklin was appointed assistant secretary of the navy in 1913, the pace of his social life grew ever more frenzied and the settings more gilded—elite private clubs, his Harvard friends’ mansions. He caroused later and later into the night. Eleanor went home earlier and earlier.
In the meantime, Eleanor found herself with a full calendar of social duties. She was expected to pay visits to the wives of other Washington luminaries, leaving calling cards at their doors and holding open houses in her own home. She didn’t relish this role, so she hired a social secretary named Lucy Mercer to help her. Which seemed a good idea—until the summer of 1917, when Eleanor took the children to Maine for the summer, leaving Franklin behind in Washington with Mercer. The two began a lifelong affair. Lucy was just the kind of lively beauty Franklin had been expected to marry in the first place.
Eleanor found out about Franklin’s betrayal when she stumbled on a packet of love letters in his suitcase. She was devastated, but stayed in the marriage. And although they never rekindled the romantic side of their relationship, she and Franklin replaced it with something formidable: a union of his confidence with her conscience.
Fast-forward to our own time, where we’ll meet another woman of similar temperament, acting out of her own sense of conscience. Dr. Elaine Aron is a research psychologist who, since her first scientific publication in 1997, has singlehandedly reframed what Jerome Kagan and others call high reactivity (and sometimes “negativity” or “inhibition”). She calls it “sensitivity,” and along with her new name for the trait, she’s transformed and deepened our understanding of it.
When I hear that Aron will be the keynote speaker at an annual weekend gathering of “highly sensitive people” at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County, California, I quickly buy plane tickets. Jacquelyn Strickland, a psychotherapist and the founder and host of the event, explains that she created these weekends so that sensitive people could benefit from being in one another’s presence. She sends me an agenda explaining that we’ll be sleeping in rooms designated for “napping, journaling, puttering, meditating, organizing, writing, and reflecting.”
“Please do socialize very quietly in your room (with consent of your roommate), or preferably in the group areas on walks and at mealtimes,” says the agenda. The conference is geared to people who enjoy meaningful discussions and sometimes “move a conversation to a deeper level, only to find out we are the only ones there.” There will be plenty of time for serious talk this weekend, we’re assured. But we’ll also be free to come and go as we please. Strickland knows that most of us will have weathered a lifetime of mandatory group activities, and she wants to show us a different model, if only for a few days.
Walker Creek Ranch sits on 1,741 acres of unspoiled Northern California wilderness. It offers hiking trails and wildlife and vast crystalline skies, but at its center is a cozy, barnlike conference center where about thirty of us gather on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of June. The Buckeye Lodge is outfitted with grey industrial carpets, large whiteboards, and picture windows overlooking sunny redwood forests. Alongside the usual piles of registration forms and name badges, there’s a flip chart where we’re asked to write our name and Myers-Briggs personality type. I scan the list. Everyone’s an introvert except for Strickland, who is warm, welcoming, and expressive. (According to Aron’s research, the majority, though not all, of sensitive people are introverts.)
The tables and chairs in the room are organized in a big square so that we can all sit and face one another. Strickland invites us—participation optional—to share what brought us here. A software engineer named Tom kicks off, describing with great passion his relief at learning that there was “a physiological basis for the trait of sensitivity. Here’s the research! This is how I am! I don’t have to try to meet anyone’s expectations anymore. I don’t need to feel apologetic or defensive in any way.” With his long, narrow face, brown hair, and matching beard, Tom reminds me of Abraham Lincoln. He introduces his wife, who talks about how compatible she and Tom are, and how together they stumbled across Aron’s work.
When it’s my turn, I talk about how I’ve never been in a group environment in which I didn’t feel obliged to present an unnaturally rah-rah version of myself. I say that I’m interested in the connection between introversion and sensitivity. Many people nod.
On Saturday morning, Dr. Aron appears in the Buckeye Lodge. She waits playfully behind an easel containing a flip chart while Strickland introduces her to the audience. Then she emerges smiling—ta-da!—from behind the easel, sensibly clad in a blazer, turtleneck, and corduroy skirt. She has short, feathery brown hair and warm, crinkly blue eyes that look as if they don’t miss a thing. You can see immediately the dignified scholar Aron is today, as well as the awkward schoolgirl she must once have been. You can see, too, her respect for her audience.
Getting right down to business, she informs us that she has five different subtopics she can discuss, and asks us to raise our hands to vote for our first, second, and third choice of subjects. Then she performs, rapid-fire, an elaborate mathematical calculation from which she determines the three subtopics for which we’ve collectively voted. The crowd settles down amiably. It doesn’t really matter which subtopics we’ve chosen; we know that Aron is here to talk about sensitivity, and that she’s taking our preferences into consideration.
Some psychologists make their mark by doing unusual research experiments. Aron’s contribution is to think differently, radically differently, about studies that others have done. When she was a girl, Aron was often told that she was “too sensitive for her own good.” She had two hardy elder siblings and was the only child in her family who liked to daydream, and play inside, and whose feelings were easily hurt. As she grew older and ventured outside her family’s orbit, she continued to notice things about herself that seemed different from the norm. She could drive alone for hours and never turn on the radio. She had strong, sometimes disturbing dreams at night. She was “strangely intense,” and often beset by powerful emotions, both positive and negative. She had trouble finding the sacred in the everyday; it seemed to be there only when she withdrew from the world.
Aron grew up, became a psychologist, and married a robust man who loved these qualities. To her husband, Art, Aron was creative, intuitive, and a deep thinker. She appreciated these things in herself, too, but saw them as “acceptable surface manifestations of a terrible, hidden flaw I had been aware of all my life.” She thought it was a miracle that Art loved her in spite of this flaw.
But when one of her fellow psychologists casually described Aron as “highly sensitive,” a lightbulb went on in her head. It was as if these two words described her mysterious failing, except that the psychologist hadn’t been referring to a flaw at all. It had been a neutral description.
Aron pondered this new insight, and then set out to research this trait called “sensitivity.” She came up mostly dry, so she pored over the vast literature on introversion, which seemed to be intimately related: Kagan’s work on high-reactive children, and the long line of experiments on the tendency of introverts to be more sensitive to social and sensory stimulation. These studies gave her glimpses of what she was looking for, but Aron thought that there was a missing piece in the emerging portrait of introverted people.
“The problem for scientists is that we try to observe behavior, and these are things that you cannot observe,” she explains. Scientists can easily report on the behavior of extroverts, who can often be found laughing, talking, or gesticulating. But “if a person is standing in the corner of a room, you can attribute about fifteen motivations to that person. But you don’t really know what’s going on inside.”
Yet inner behavior was still behavior, thought Aron, even if it was difficult to catalog. So what is the inner behavior of people whose most visible feature is that when you take them to a party they aren’t very pleased about it? She decided to find out.
First Aron interviewed thirty-nine people who described themselves as being either introverted or easily overwhelmed by stimulation. She asked them about the movies they liked, their first memories, relationships with parents, friendships, love lives, creative activities, philosophical and religious views. Based on these interviews, she created a voluminous questionnaire that she gave to several large groups of people. Then she boiled their responses down to a constellation of twenty-seven attributes. She named the people who embodied these attributes “highly sensitive.”
Some of these twenty-seven attributes were familiar from Kagan and others’ work. For example, highly sensitive people tend to be keen observers who look before they leap. They arrange their lives in ways that limit surprises. They’re often sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, pain, coffee. They have difficulty when being observed (at work, say, or performing at a music recital) or judged for general worthiness (dating, job interviews).
But there were also new insights. The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive (just as Aron’s husband had described her). They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions—sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear.
Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments—both physical and emotional—unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss—another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.
Recently a group of scientists at Stony Brook University tested this finding by showing two pairs of photos (of a fence and some bales of hay) to eighteen people lying inside fMRI machines. In one pair the photos were noticeably different from each other, and in the other pair the difference was much more subtle. For each pair, the scientists asked whether the second photo was the same as the first. They found that sensitive people spent more time than others looking at the photos with the subtle differences. Their brains also showed more activity in regions that help to make associations between those images and other stored information. In other words, the sensitive people were processing the photos at a more elaborate level than their peers, reflecting more on those fenceposts and haystacks.
This study is very new, and its conclusions still need to be replicated and explored in other contexts. But it echoes Jerome Kagan’s findings that high-reactive first graders spend more time than other children comparing choices when they play matching games or reading unfamiliar words. And it suggests, says Jadzia Jagiellowicz, the lead scientist at Stony Brook, that sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they’re so bored by small talk. “If you’re thinking in more complicated ways,” she told me, “then talking about the weather or where you went for the holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.”
The other thing Aron found about sensitive people is that sometimes they’re highly empathic. It’s as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and TV shows; they’re acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. In social settings they often focus on subjects like personal problems, which others consider “too heavy.”
Aron realized that she was on to something big. Many of the characteristics of sensitive people that she’d identified—such as empathy and responsiveness to beauty—were believed by psychologists to be characteristic of other personality traits like “agreeableness” and “openness to experience.” But Aron saw that they were also a fundamental part of sensitivity. Her findings implicitly challenged accepted tenets of personality psychology.
She started publishing her results in academic journals and books, and speaking publicly about her work. At first this was difficult. Audience members told her that her ideas were fascinating, but that her uncertain delivery was distracting. But Aron had a great desire to get her message out. She persevered, and learned to speak like the authority she was. By the time I saw her at Walker Creek Ranch, she was practiced, crisp, and sure. The only difference between her and your typical speaker was how conscientious she seemed about answering every last audience question. She lingered afterward with the group, even though, as an extreme introvert, she must have been itching to get home.
Aron’s description of highly sensitive people sounds as if she’s talking about Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Indeed, in the years since Aron first published her findings, scientists have found that when you put people whose genetic profiles have been tentatively associated with sensitivity and introversion (people with the gene variant of 5-HTTLPR that characterized the rhesus monkeys of chapter 3) inside an fMRI machine and show them pictures of scared faces, accident victims, mutilated bodies, and polluted scenery, the amygdala—the part of the brain that plays such an important role in processing emotions—becomes strongly activated. Aron and a team of scientists have also found that when sensitive people see faces of people experiencing strong feelings, they have more activation than others do in areas of the brain associated with empathy and with trying to control strong emotions.
It’s as if, like Eleanor Roosevelt, they can’t help but feel what others feel.
In 1921, FDR contracted polio. It was a terrible blow, and he considered retiring to the country to live out his life as an invalid gentleman. But Eleanor kept his contacts with the Democratic Party alive while he recovered, even agreeing to address a party fund-raiser. She was terrified of public speaking, and not much good at it—she had a high-pitched voice and laughed nervously at all the wrong times. But she trained for the event and made her way through the speech.
After that, Eleanor was still unsure of herself, but she began working to fix the social problems she saw all around her. She became a champion of women’s issues and forged alliances with other serious-minded people. By 1928, when FDR was elected governor of New York, she was the director of the Bureau of Women’s Activities for the Democratic Party and one of the most influential women in American politics. She and Franklin were now a fully functioning partnership of his savoir faire and her social conscience. “I knew about social conditions, perhaps more than he did,” Eleanor recalled with characteristic modesty. “But he knew about government and how you could use government to improve things. And I think we began to get an understanding of teamwork.”
FDR was elected president in 1933. It was the height of the Depression, and Eleanor traveled the country—in a single three-month period she covered 40,000 miles—listening to ordinary people tell their hard-luck stories. People opened up to her in ways they didn’t for other powerful figures. She became for Franklin the voice of the dispossessed. When she returned home from her trips, she often told him what she’d seen and pressed him to act. She helped orchestrate government programs for half-starved miners in Appalachia. She urged FDR to include women and African-Americans in his programs to put people back to work. And she helped arrange for Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. “She kept at him on issues which he might, in the rush of things, have wanted to overlook,” the historian Geoff Ward has said. “She kept him to a high standard. Anyone who ever saw her lock eyes with him and say, ‘Now Franklin, you should …’ never forgot it.”
The shy young woman who’d been terrified of public speaking grew to love public life. Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to hold a press conference, address a national convention, write a newspaper column, and appear on talk radio. Later in her career she served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, where she used her unusual brand of political skills and hard-won toughness to help win passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She never did outgrow her vulnerability; all her life she suffered dark “Griselda moods,” as she called them (named for a princess in a medieval legend who withdrew into silence), and struggled to “develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide.” “I think people who are shy remain shy always, but they learn how to overcome it,” she said. But it was perhaps this sensitivity that made it easy for her to relate to the disenfranchised, and conscientious enough to act on their behalf. FDR, elected at the start of the Depression, is remembered for his compassion. But it was Eleanor who made sure he knew how suffering Americans felt.
The connection between sensitivity and conscience has long been observed. Imagine the following experiment, performed by the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska. A kind woman hands a toy to a toddler, explaining that the child should be very careful because it’s one of the woman’s favorites. The child solemnly nods assent and begins to play with the toy. Soon afterward, it breaks dramatically in two, having been rigged to do so.
The woman looks upset and cries, “Oh my!” Then she waits to see what the child does next.
Some children, it turns out, feel a lot more guilty about their (supposed) transgression than others. They look away, hug themselves, stammer out confessions, hide their faces. And it’s the kids we might call the most sensitive, the most high-reactive, the ones who are likely to be introverts who feel the guiltiest. Being unusually sensitive to all experience, both positive and negative, they seem to feel both the sorrow of the woman whose toy is broken and the anxiety of having done something bad. (In case you’re wondering, the woman in the experiments quickly returned to the room with the toy “fixed” and reassurances that the child had done nothing wrong.)
In our culture, guilt is a tainted word, but it’s probably one of the building blocks of conscience. The anxiety these highly sensitive toddlers feel upon apparently breaking the toy gives them the motivation to avoid harming someone’s plaything the next time. By age four, according to Kochanska, these same kids are less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can’t be caught. And by six or seven, they’re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy. They also have fewer behavioral problems in general.
“Functional, moderate guilt,” writes Kochanska, “may promote future altruism, personal responsibility, adaptive behavior in school, and harmonious, competent, and prosocial relationships with parents, teachers, and friends.” This is an especially important set of attributes at a time when a 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (The study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.”)
Of course, having these traits doesn’t mean that sensitive children are angels. They have selfish streaks like everyone else. Sometimes they act aloof and unfriendly. And when they’re overwhelmed by negative emotions like shame or anxiety, says Aron, they can be positively oblivious of other people’s needs.
But the same receptivity to experience that can make life difficult for the highly sensitive also builds their consciences. Aron tells of one sensitive teen who persuaded his mother to feed a homeless person he’d met in the park, and of another eight-year-old who cried not only when she felt embarrassed, but also when her peers were teased.
We know this type of person well from literature, probably because so many writers are sensitive introverts themselves. He “had gone through life with one skin fewer than most men,” the novelist Eric Malpass writes of his quiet and cerebral protagonist, also an author, in the novel The Long Long Dances. “The troubles of others moved him more, as did also the teeming beauty of life: moved him, compelled him, to seize a pen and write about them. [He was moved by] walking in the hills, listening to a Schubert impromptu, watching nightly from his armchair the smashing of bone and flesh that made up so much of the nine o’clock news.”
The description of such characters as thin-skinned is meant metaphorically, but it turns out that it’s actually quite literal. Among the tests researchers use to measure personality traits are skin conductance tests, which record how much people sweat in response to noises, strong emotions, and other stimuli. High-reactive introverts sweat more; low-reactive extroverts sweat less. Their skin is literally “thicker,” more impervious to stimuli, cooler to the touch. In fact, according to some of the scientists I spoke to, this is where our notion of being socially “cool” comes from; the lower-reactive you are, the cooler your skin, the cooler you are. (Incidentally, sociopaths lie at the extreme end of this coolness barometer, with extremely low levels of arousal, skin conductance, and anxiety. There is some evidence that sociopaths have damaged amygdalae.)
Lie detectors (polygraphs) are partially skin conductance tests. They operate on the theory that lying causes anxiety, which triggers the skin to perspire imperceptibly. When I was in college, I applied for a summer job as a secretary at a large jewelry company. I had to take a lie detector test as part of the application process. The test was administered in a small, dingily lit room with linoleum floors, by a thin, cigarette-puffing man with pocked yellow skin. The man asked me a series of warm-up questions: my name, address, and so on, to establish my baseline level of skin conductance. Then the questions grew more probing and the examiner’s manner harsher. Had I been arrested? Had I ever shoplifted? Had I used cocaine? With this last question my interrogator peered at me intently. As it happens, I never had tried cocaine. But he seemed to think I had. The accusing look on his face was the equivalent of the old policeman’s trick where they tell the suspect that they have the damning evidence and there’s no point denying it.
I knew the man was mistaken, but I still felt myself blush. And sure enough, the test came back showing I’d lied on the cocaine question. My skin is so thin, apparently, that it sweats in response to imaginary crimes!
We tend to think of coolness as a pose that you strike with a pair of sunglasses, a nonchalant attitude, and drink in hand. But maybe we didn’t choose these social accessories at random. Maybe we’ve adopted dark glasses, relaxed body language, and alcohol as signifiers precisely because they camouflage signs of a nervous system on overdrive. Sunglasses prevent others from seeing our eyes dilate with surprise or fear; we know from Kagan’s work that a relaxed torso is a hallmark of low reactivity; and alcohol removes our inhibitions and lowers our arousal levels. When you go to a football game and someone offers you a beer, says the personality psychologist Brian Little, “they’re really saying hi, have a glass of extroversion.”
Teenagers understand instinctively the physiology of cool. In Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep, which explores the adolescent social rituals of boarding-school life with uncanny precision, the protagonist, Lee, is invited unexpectedly to the dorm room of Aspeth, the coolest girl in school. The first thing she notices is how physically stimulating Aspeth’s world is. “From outside the door, I could hear pounding music,” she observes. “White Christmas lights, currently turned on, were taped high up along all the walls, and on the north wall they’d hung an enormous orange and green tapestry.… I felt overstimulated and vaguely irritated. The room I shared with [my roommate] seemed so quiet and plain, our lives seemed so quiet and plain. Had Aspeth been born cool, I wondered, or had someone taught her, like an older sister or a cousin?”
Jock cultures sense the low-reactive physiology of cool, too. For the early U.S. astronauts, having a low heart rate, which is associated with low reactivity, was a status symbol. Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the Earth and would later run for president, was admired by his comrades for his supercool pulse rate during liftoff (only 110 beats per minute).
But physical lack of cool may be more socially valuable than we think. That deep blush when a hard-bitten tester puts his face an inch from yours and asks if you’ve ever used cocaine turns out to be a kind of social glue. In a recent experiment, a team of psychologists led by Corine Dijk asked sixty-odd participants to read accounts of people who’d done something morally wrong, like driving away from a car crash, or something embarrassing, like spilling coffee on someone. The participants were shown photographs of the wrongdoers, who had one of four different facial expressions: shame or embarrassment (head and eyes down); shame/embarrassment plus a blush; neutral; or neutral with a blush. Then they were asked to rate how sympathetic and trustworthy the transgressors were.
It turned out that the offenders who blushed were judged a lot more positively than those who didn’t. This was because the blush signified concern for others. As Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in positive emotions, put it to the New York Times, “A blush comes online in two or three seconds and says, ‘I care; I know I violated the social contract.’ ”
In fact, the very thing that many high-reactives hate most about blushing—its uncontrollability—is what makes it so socially useful. “Because it is impossible to control the blush intentionally,” Dijk speculates, blushing is an authentic sign of embarrassment. And embarrassment, according to Keltner, is a moral emotion. It shows humility, modesty, and a desire to avoid aggression and make peace. It’s not about isolating the person who feels ashamed (which is how it sometimes feels to easy blushers), but about bringing people together.
Keltner has tracked the roots of human embarrassment and found that after many primates fight, they try to make up. They do this partly by making gestures of embarrassment of the kind we see in humans—looking away, which acknowledges wrongdoing and the intention to stop; lowering the head, which shrinks one’s size; and pressing the lips together, a sign of inhibition. These gestures in humans have been called “acts of devotion,” writes Keltner. Indeed, Keltner, who is trained in reading people’s faces, has studied photos of moral heroes like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and found that they feature just such controlled smiles and averted eyes.
In his book, Born to Be Good, Keltner even says that if he had to choose his mate by asking a single question at a speed-dating event, the question he would choose is: “What was your last embarrassing experience?” Then he would watch very carefully for lip-presses, blushing, and averted eyes. “The elements of the embarrassment are fleeting statements the individual makes about his or her respect for the judgment of others,” he writes. “Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another.”
In other words, you want to make sure that your spouse cares what other people think. It’s better to mind too much than to mind too little.
No matter how great the benefits of blushing, the phenomenon of high sensitivity raises an obvious question. How did the highly sensitive manage to survive the harsh sorting-out process of evolution? If the bold and aggressive generally prevail (as it sometimes seems), why were the sensitive not selected out of the human population thousands of years ago, like tree frogs colored orange? For you may, like the protagonist of The Long Long Dances, be moved more deeply than the next person by the opening chords of a Schubert impromptu, and you may flinch more than others at the smashing of bone and flesh, and you may have been the sort of child who squirmed horribly when you thought you’d broken someone’s toy, but evolution doesn’t reward such things.
Or does it?
Elaine Aron has an idea about this. She believes that high sensitivity was not itself selected for, but rather the careful, reflective style that tends to accompany it. “The type that is ‘sensitive’ or ‘reactive’ would reflect a strategy of observing carefully before acting,” she writes, “thus avoiding dangers, failures, and wasted energy, which would require a nervous system specially designed to observe and detect subtle differences. It is a strategy of ‘betting on a sure thing’ or ‘looking before you leap.’ In contrast, the active strategy of the [other type] is to be first, without complete information and with the attendant risks—the strategy of ‘taking a long shot’ because the ‘early bird catches the worm’ and ‘opportunity only knocks once.’ ”
In truth, many people Aron considers sensitive have some of the twenty-seven attributes associated with the trait, but not all of them. Maybe they’re sensitive to light and noise, but not to coffee or pain; maybe they’re not sensitive to anything sensory, but they’re deep thinkers with a rich inner life. Maybe they’re not even introverts—only 70 percent of sensitive people are, according to Aron, while the other 30 percent are extroverts (although this group tends to report craving more downtime and solitude than your typical extrovert). This, speculates Aron, is because sensitivity arose as a by-product of survival strategy, and you need only some, not all, of the traits to pull off the strategy effectively.
There’s a great deal of evidence for Aron’s point of view. Evolutionary biologists once believed that every animal species evolved to fit an ecological niche, that there was one ideal set of behaviors for that niche, and that species members whose behavior deviated from that ideal would die off. But it turns out that it’s not only humans that divide into those who “watch and wait” and others who “just do it.” More than a hundred species in the animal kingdom are organized in roughly this way.
From fruit flies to house cats to mountain goats, from sunfish to bushbaby primates to Eurasian tit birds, scientists have discovered that approximately 20 percent of the members of many species are “slow to warm up,” while the other 80 percent are “fast” types who venture forth boldly without noticing much of what’s going on around them. (Intriguingly, the percentage of infants in Kagan’s lab who were born high-reactive was also, you’ll recall, about twenty.)
If “fast” and “slow” animals had parties, writes the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, “some of the fasts would bore everyone with their loud conversation, while others would mutter into their beer that they don’t get any respect. Slow animals are best described as shy, sensitive types. They don’t assert themselves, but they are observant and notice things that are invisible to the bullies. They are the writers and artists at the party who have interesting conversations out of earshot of the bullies. They are the inventors who figure out new ways to behave, while the bullies steal their patents by copying their behavior.”
Once in a while, a newspaper or TV program runs a story about animal personalities, casting shy behavior as unseemly and bold behavior as attractive and admirable. (That’s our kind of fruit fly!) But Wilson, like Aron, believes that both types of animals exist because they have radically different survival strategies, each of which pays off differently and at different times. This is what’s known as the trade-off theory of evolution, in which a particular trait is neither all good nor all bad, but a mix of pros and cons whose survival value varies according to circumstance.
“Shy” animals forage less often and widely for food, conserving energy, sticking to the sidelines, and surviving when predators come calling. Bolder animals sally forth, swallowed regularly by those farther up the food chain but surviving when food is scarce and they need to assume more risk. When Wilson dropped metal traps into a pond full of pumpkinseed fish, an event he says must have seemed to the fish as unsettling as a flying saucer landing on Earth, the bold fish couldn’t help but investigate—and rushed headlong into Wilson’s traps. The shy fish hovered judiciously at the edge of the pond, making it impossible for Wilson to catch them.
On the other hand, after Wilson succeeded in trapping both types of fish with an elaborate netting system and carrying them back to his lab, the bold fish acclimated quickly to their new environment and started eating a full five days earlier than did their shy brethren. “There is no single best … [animal] personality,” writes Wilson, “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”
Another example of the trade-off theory of evolution is a species known as Trinidadian guppies. These guppies develop personalities—with astonishing speed, in evolutionary terms—to suit the microclimates in which they live. Their natural predators are pike. But some guppy neighborhoods, upstream of a waterfall for example, are pike-free. If you’re a guppy who grew up in such a charmed locale, then chances are you have a bold and carefree personality well suited to la dolce vita. In contrast, if your guppy family came from a “bad neighborhood” downstream from the waterfall, where pike cruise the waterways menacingly, then you probably have a much more circumspect style, just right for avoiding the bad guys.
The interesting thing is that these differences are heritable, not learned, so that the offspring of bold guppies who move into bad neighborhoods inherit their parents’ boldness—even though this puts them at a severe disadvantage compared to their vigilant peers. It doesn’t take long for their genes to mutate, though, and descendants who manage to survive tend to be careful types. The same thing happens to vigilant guppies when the pike suddenly disappear; it takes about twenty years for their descendants to evolve into fish who act as if they haven’t a care in the world.
The trade-off theory seems to apply equally to humans. Scientists have found that nomads who inherited the form of a particular gene linked to extroversion (specifically, to novelty-seeking) are better nourished than those without this version of the gene. But in settled populations, people with this same gene form have poorer nutrition. The same traits that make a nomad fierce enough to hunt and to defend livestock against raiders may hinder more sedentary activities like farming, selling goods at the market, or focusing at school.
Or consider this trade-off: human extroverts have more sex partners than introverts do—a boon to any species wanting to reproduce itself—but they commit more adultery and divorce more frequently, which is not a good thing for the children of all those couplings. Extroverts exercise more, but introverts suffer fewer accidents and traumatic injuries. Extroverts enjoy wider networks of social support, but commit more crimes. As Jung speculated almost a century ago about the two types, “the one [extroversion] consists in a high rate of fertility, with low powers of defense and short duration of life for the single individual; the other [introversion] consists in equipping the individual with numerous means of self-preservation plus a low fertility rate.”
The trade-off theory may even apply to entire species. Among evolutionary biologists, who tend to subscribe to the vision of lone individuals hell-bent on reproducing their own DNA, the idea that species include individuals whose traits promote group survival is hotly debated and, not long ago, could practically get you kicked out of the academy. But this view is slowly gaining acceptance. Some scientists even speculate that the evolutionary basis for traits like sensitivity is heightened compassion for the suffering of other members of one’s species, especially one’s family.
But you don’t have to go that far. As Aron explains, it makes sense that animal groups depend on their sensitive members for survival. “Suppose a herd of antelope … has a few members who are constantly stopping their grazing to use their keen senses to watch for predators,” she writes. “Herds with such sensitive, watchful individuals would survive better, and so continue to breed, and so continue to have some sensitive individuals born in the group.”
And why should it be any different for humans? We need our Eleanor Roosevelts as surely as grazing herds depend on their sensitive antelopes.
In addition to “shy” and “bold” animals, and to “fast” and “slow” ones, biologists sometimes speak of the “hawk” and “dove” members of a given species. Great tit birds, for example, some of whom are much more aggressive than others, often act like case studies in an international relations class. These birds feed on beech tree nuts, and in years when nuts are scarce, the hawkish female birds do better, just as you’d expect, because they’re quick to challenge nut-eating competitors to a duel. But in seasons when there are plenty of beech nuts to go around, the female “doves”—who, incidentally, tend to make more attentive mothers—do better than the “hawks,” because the hawks waste time and bodily health getting into fights for no good reason.
Male great tits, on the other hand, have the opposite pattern. This is because their main role in life is not to find food but to defend territory. In years when food is scarce, so many of their fellow tit birds die of hunger that there’s enough space for all. The hawkish males then fall into the same trap as their female comrades during nutty seasons—they brawl, squandering precious resources with each bloody battle. But in good years, when competition for nesting territory heats up, aggression pays for the hawkish male tit bird.
During times of war or fear—the human equivalent of a bad nut season for female tit birds—it might seem that what we need most are aggressive heroic types. But if our entire population consisted of warriors, there would be no one to notice, let alone battle, potentially deadly but far quieter threats like viral disease or climate change.
Consider Vice President Al Gore’s decades-long crusade to raise awareness of global warming. Gore is, by many accounts, an introvert. “If you send an introvert into a reception or an event with a hundred other people he will emerge with less energy than he had going in,” says a former aide. “Gore needs a rest after an event.” Gore acknowledges that his skills are not conducive to stumping and speechmaking. “Most people in politics draw energy from backslapping and shaking hands and all that,” he has said. “I draw energy from discussing ideas.”
But combine that passion for thought with attention to subtlety—both common characteristics of introverts—and you get a very powerful mix. In 1968, when Gore was a college student at Harvard, he took a class with an influential oceanographer who presented early evidence linking the burning of fossil fuels with the greenhouse effect. Gore’s ears perked up.
He tried to tell others what he knew. But he found that people wouldn’t listen. It was as if they couldn’t hear the alarm bells that rang so loudly in his ears.
“When I went to Congress in the middle of the 1970s, I helped organize the first hearings on global warming,” he recalls in the Oscar-winning movie An Inconvenient Truth—a film whose most stirring action scenes involve the solitary figure of Gore wheeling his suitcase through a midnight airport. Gore seems genuinely puzzled that no one paid attention: “I actually thought and believed that the story would be compelling enough to cause a real sea change in the way Congress reacted to that issue. I thought they would be startled, too. And they weren’t.”
But if Gore had known then what we know now about Kagan’s research, and Aron’s, he might have been less surprised by his colleagues’ reactions. He might even have used his insight into personality psychology to get them to listen. Congress, he could have safely assumed, is made up of some of the least sensitive people in the country—people who, if they’d been kids in one of Kagan’s experiments, would have marched up to oddly attired clowns and strange ladies wearing gas masks without so much as a backward glance at their mothers. Remember Kagan’s introverted Tom and extroverted Ralph? Well, Congress is full of Ralphs—it was designed for people like Ralph. Most of the Toms of the world do not want to spend their days planning campaigns and schmoozing with lobbyists.
These Ralph-like Congressmen can be wonderful people—exuberant, fearless, persuasive—but they’re unlikely to feel alarmed by a photograph of a tiny crack in a distant glacier. They need more intense stimulation to get them to listen. Which is why Gore finally got his message across when he teamed up with whiz-bang Hollywood types who could package his warning into the special-effects-laden show that became An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore also drew on his own strengths, using his natural focus and diligence to tirelessly promote the movie. He visited dozens of movie theaters across the country to meet with viewers, and gave innumerable TV and radio interviews. On the subject of global warming, Gore has a clarity of voice that eluded him as a politician. For Gore, immersing himself in a complicated scientific puzzle comes naturally. Focusing on a single passion rather than tap dancing from subject to subject comes naturally. Even talking to crowds comes naturally when the topic is climate change: Gore on global warming has an easy charisma and connection with audience members that eluded him as a political candidate. That’s because this mission, for him, is not about politics or personality. It’s about the call of his conscience. “It’s about the survival of the planet,” he says. “Nobody is going to care who won or lost any election when the earth is uninhabitable.”
If you’re a sensitive sort, then you may be in the habit of pretending to be more of a politician and less cautious or single-mindedly focused than you actually are. But in this chapter I’m asking you to rethink this view. Without people like you, we will, quite literally, drown.
Back here at Walker Creek Ranch and the gathering for sensitive people, the Extrovert Ideal and its primacy of cool is turned upside down. If “cool” is low reactivity that predisposes a person to boldness or nonchalance, then the crowd that has come to meet Elaine Aron is deeply uncool.
The atmosphere is startling simply because it’s so unusual. It’s something you might find at a yoga class or in a Buddhist monastery, except that here there’s no unifying religion or worldview, only a shared temperament. It’s easy to see this when Aron delivers her speech. She has long observed that when she speaks to groups of highly sensitive people the room is more hushed and respectful than would be usual in a public gathering place, and this is true throughout her presentation. But it carries over all weekend.
I’ve never heard so many “after you’s” and “thank you’s” as I do here. During meals, which are held at long communal tables in a summer-camp style, open-air cafeteria, people plunge hungrily into searching conversations. There’s a lot of one-on-one discussion about intimate topics like childhood experiences and adult love lives, and social issues like health care and climate change; there’s not much in the way of storytelling intended to entertain. People listen carefully to each other and respond thoughtfully; Aron has noted that sensitive people tend to speak softly because that’s how they prefer others to communicate with them.
“In the rest of the world,” observes Michelle, a web designer who leans forward as if bracing herself against an imaginary blast of wind, “you make a statement and people may or may not discuss it. Here you make a statement and someone says, ‘What does that mean?’ And if you ask that question of someone else, they actually answer.”
It’s not that there’s no small talk, observes Strickland, the leader of the gathering. It’s that it comes not at the beginning of conversations but at the end. In most settings, people use small talk as a way of relaxing into a new relationship, and only once they’re comfortable do they connect more seriously. Sensitive people seem to do the reverse. They “enjoy small talk only after they’ve gone deep,” says Strickland. “When sensitive people are in environments that nurture their authenticity, they laugh and chitchat just as much as anyone else.”
On the first night we drift to our bedrooms, housed in a dormlike building. I brace myself instinctively: now’s the time when I’ll want to read or sleep, but will instead be called upon to have a pillow fight (summer camp) or play a loud and boring drinking game (college). But at Walker Creek Ranch, my roommate, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary with huge, doe-like eyes and the ambition to become an author, is happy to spend the evening writing peacefully in her journal. I do the same.
Of course, the weekend is not completely without tension. Some people are reserved to the point of appearing sullen. Sometimes the do-your-own-thing policy threatens to devolve into mutual loneliness as everyone goes their own separate ways. In fact, there is such a deficit of the social behavior we call “cool” that I begin thinking someone should be cracking jokes, stirring things up, handing out rum-and-Cokes. Shouldn’t they?
The truth is, as much as I crave breathing room for sensitive types, I enjoy hail-fellows-well-met, too. I’m glad for the “cool” among us, and I miss them this weekend. I’m starting to speak so softly that I feel like I’m putting myself to sleep. I wonder if deep down the others feel this way, too.
Tom, the software engineer and Abraham Lincoln look-alike, tells me of a former girlfriend who was always throwing open the doors of her house to friends and strangers. She was adventurous in every way: she loved new food, new sexual experiences, new people. It didn’t work out between them—Tom eventually craved the company of a partner who would focus more on their relationship and less on the outside world, and he’s happily married now to just such a woman—but he’s glad for the time with his ex-girlfriend.
As Tom talks, I think of how much I miss my husband, Ken, who’s back home in New York and not a sensitive type either, far from it. Sometimes this is frustrating: if something moves me to tears of empathy or anxiety, he’ll be touched, but grow impatient if I stay that way too long. But I also know that his tougher attitude is good for me, and I find his company endlessly delightful. I love his effortless charm. I love that he never runs out of interesting things to say. I love how he pours his heart and soul into everything he does, and everyone he loves, especially our family.
But most of all I love his way of expressing compassion. Ken may be aggressive, more aggressive in a week than I’ll be in a lifetime, but he uses it on behalf of others. Before we met, he worked for the UN in war zones all over the world, where, among other things, he conducted prisoner-of-war and detainee release negotiations. He would march into fetid jails and face down camp commanders with machine guns strapped to their chests until they agreed to release young girls who’d committed no crime other than to be female and victims of rape. After many years on the job, he went home and wrote down what he’d witnessed, in books and articles that bristled with rage. He didn’t write in the style of a sensitive person, and he made a lot of people angry. But he wrote like a person who cares, desperately.
I thought that Walker Creek Ranch would make me long for a world of the highly sensitive, a world in which everyone speaks softly and no one carries a big stick. But instead it reinforced my deeper yearning for balance. This balance, I think, is what Elaine Aron would say is our natural state of being, at least in Indo-European cultures like ours, which she observes have long been divided into “warrior kings” and “priestly advisers,” into the executive branch and the judicial branch, into bold and easy FDRs and sensitive, conscientious Eleanor Roosevelts.